DC exoneration raises painful questions

Sentae Tribble

By Alan Bean

Santae Tribble spent 28 years in prison for killing a Washington DC cab driver.   Prosecutors knew they had the right man because FBI forensic experts testified that a hair found in the stocking cap used by the killer matched Tribble’s hair sample “in all microscopic characteristics.”

According to the Washington Post, “In closing arguments, federal prosecutor David Stanley went further, saying ‘There is one chance, perhaps for all we know, in 10 million that it could [be] someone else’s hair.'”

That was long before the feds started running DNA tests in 1996.  When Tribble’s hair was finally tested he was ruled out as the killer.  By that time, he had already served the entirety of his sentence.

The crime was murder and the case was federal and, since the death penalty was restored in 1972, only three men have been executed in the federal system.  But what if this case had been tried in Texas?  Or Florida?  In that case, Santae Tribble would have been executed.

The Washington Post story links to earlier reporting in which forensic “science” was exposed as a pseudo-scientific farce.  How many people have been executed on the basis of flawed “expert” testimony?  We will never know.

But here’s the real problem: 85% of criminal cases involving crimes of violence contain no meaningful DNA evidence and, apart from the Dallas DA’s office, heroic efforts are rarely made to test the evidence where it exists.

The death penalty will eventually be repealed, not because a majority of Americans believe it is morally wrong for the state to take a life, but because we have finally realized that the state is comprised of fallible, foolish human beings who aren’t up for playing God.

When the evidence in a capital case is ambiguous a jury will convict anyway.  Jurors can’t live with the idea that they might be returning a monster to the streets.  We resort to forensic experts to add a patina of scientific authority to what is often a tragic and pathetic guessing game.

How many innocent men and women are languishing behind bars because the forensic community massaged the evidence?  We can’t know, but there are hundreds of these people, possibly thousands.  How many innocent people have we executed?  One is far too many.