DNA reveals FBI error in conviction

Last updated 18:40 22/07/2014
Kevin Martin
THE WASHINGTON POST
DNA: Kevin Martin becomes emotional while talking to reporters after leaving the D.C. Superior courthouse on Monday after being exonerated for a crime he didn't commit.

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A D.C. Superior Court judge concluded Monday that DNA evidence exonerates a man who spent 26 years in prison for the 1982 rape and murder of a Washington woman.

Kevin Martin's case marks the fifth time in as many years that federal prosecutors in Washington acknowledged that errors by an elite FBI forensic unit have led to a wrongful conviction.

U.S. attorney Ronald Machen joined defence calls to vacate Martin's conviction and declare him innocent of the attack on Ursula Brown. Machen cited DNA evidence that contradicts a previous finding by forensic experts linking Martin to a hair collected at the crime scene.

"Thirty years ago, Kevin Martin was unjustly branded a rapist and murderer. . .," Machen said in a statement. "It is never too late to do justice."

Martin, who had long professed innocence in the killing, left the D.C. courthouse with his name cleared. He was paroled in 2009 and lives in San Francisco.

"I am free at last. I am humbled. I never gave up," Martin said, hugging and high-fiving his attorneys. Martin's younger sister, his fiancée, his 6-year-old niece and other family members gathered around.

"I just want to live," said Martin, 50,

The hearing came as Machen's office nears the end of a 2-1/2 year review of all local convictions involving FBI hair matches that was launched in 2012 after demands by the D.C. Public Defender Service.

The service has worked to clear four other men convicted by such matches since 2009. And the troubling problems exposed in the FBI lab's methods have led the Bureau and Justice Department to undertake a nationwide review of more than 2,100 convictions in the 1980s and 1990s.

Martin's is the first wrongful conviction uncovered by Washington prosecutors in the local review, and they said it is the only one they have found. PDS praised the effort to exonerate Martin, but criticized the U.S. Attorney's Office review as secretive and the disclosure of results as incomplete and overdue.

Brown, 19, was abducted on Nov. 1, 1982, after her car was struck from behind on the Anacostia Freeway, during a rash of what authorities called "bump-and-rob" assaults.

Her partially clothed body was later found near a dumpster next to an elementary school in Southeast Washington. She had been sexually assaulted, shot in the head and stabbed.

Martin, then a 17-year-old PCP addict, was arrested and pleaded guilty to a series of similar armed robberies that occurred one week later, but, from the start, maintained he knew nothing about Brown's death.

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As they built a case, prosecutors told the defence that an FBI examiner was prepared to testify that a pubic hair found on Brown's sneaker was a match to Martin. In March 1984, Martin entered an Alford plea to manslaughter. Under such a plea, a defendant acknowledges that prosecutors have sufficient evidence for a conviction but do not admit guilt.

Martin was sentenced in 1984 to 35 years to life in prison for manslaughter and robbery. He wrote letters to the judge and attorneys claiming his innocence in the slaying and lawyer Bernard Grimm and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project began to look into the case. Martin was paroled in 2009 after prosecutors agree that his sentence should be reduced.

While the hair could not be located during the review, modern-day testing of biological evidence from the crime excluded him as the source, attorneys said.

Unlike the four previous Washington cases, Martin's was uncovered by the review by Machen's office, which this winter asked Martin's attorney if he wanted new DNA testing.

Martin had sought DNA tests in 2001, but D.C. police said evidence was lost. Police subsequently moved evidence from a decrepit warehouse into a new facility, re-inventorying the contents, and Martin's file turned up last November, according to court papers released by Grimm. While the hair was not located, over evidence was. This winter, Machen's office asked Martin's attorney if they wanted new DNA testing done.

In March, as first reported by Fox 5, Martin learned the testing excluded him as a source of biological evidence collected from the victim.

In court papers, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ambrosino wrote that the "DNA testing conducted at the expense of the government along with other factors . . . conclusively establish that Kevin Martin is innocent of the rape and murder of Ursula Brown."

The first of the D.C. exonerations occurred in December 2009 when Superior Court Judge Fred Ugast ordered the release of Donald Gates, then 60, after DNA results cleared him of a rape-murder for which he had spent 28 years in prison.

The D.C. Public Defender Service, which represented Gates, also found that prosecutors failed for many years to disclose that the Justice Department's inspector general identified problems with work done by the FBI agent who linked Gates's hair to the crime.

Ugast ordered Machen's office to review all cases handled by the agent, Michael Malone. In 2012, facing continued demands by PDS, Machen ordered a review of all convictions that relied on FBI hair analysis.

Since then, Superior Court judges have exonerated three more wrongfully convicted PDS clients - Santae Tribble and Cleveland Wright, of two connected murders; and Kirk Odom of rape - after DNA tests contradicted claims by FBI hair examiners . The three men collectively spent nearly 80 years in prison.

Their cases were featured in The Washington Post, and the FBI and Justice Department in 2012 announced they would review FBI testimony in all convictions involving FBI hair matches in the 1980s and 1990s.

Grimm praised Machen's office, saying: "Had the U.S. attorney's office not reviewed these cases, Kevin Martin never would have found out that evidence could be retested, and he still would be on parole for rape and homicide."

Machen's office said its inquiry identified 122 Washington convictions before 2000 that included an FBI hair match, completed reviewing 106 of them, and found only one case, Martin's, in which prosecutors believed the conviction depended on the FBI finding, or in which DNA testing would yield a "viable" claim for innocence, Machen spokesman Bill Miller said.

Miller said prosecutors will begin notifying defendants' last counsel of record in the 106 cases, beginning Monday with the Public Defender Service, and also notify the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project for defendants with other counsel, in case those lawyers had retired, moved or died.

PDS said prosecutors' approach may not have led to the reversal of Gates, Tribble or Wright's convictions because PDS was not their last counsel. They said that for more than four years, prosecutors refused repeated requests to release the names of all defendants whose convictions relied on FBI hair evidence to PDS, the standards for their review, or to disclose cases as reviews were completed.

Last Wednesday, a new report by the Justice Department inspector general's office criticized the department and FBI for failing to give proper and timely notice to defendants in cases affected by internal reviews of cases, such as Gates's, and said the department should work with public defenders, among other outside entities.

"The U.S. Attorney's Office appears to have learned very little from the errors devastatingly portrayed in [the] OIG report. This report shows that delay is inexcusable and that it can have tragic consequences," said Sandra Levick, chief of special litigation for the D.C. PDS.

Machen's office said it did not have all names four years ago and that it took great effort to identify cases based on FBI lab reports.

Miller said Machen's office devoted thousands of hours involving 30 experienced prosecutors in the review of scores of decades-old cases, and asked leaders of the local defense bar including PDS to alert the office to post-conviction innocence claims.

At the close of the Monday hearing, D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert Richter wished Martin well.

"Take care Mr. Martin," he said. "You look like a happy man. I'm glad to see this."

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