Yesterday, a federal jury found that D.C. police framed an innocent man for a 1981 rape and murder. Now the District is liable for damages after he was imprisoned for 27 years.
In case you missed it, for two decades, forensic experts with the FBI’s microscopic hair comparison unit submitted flawed evidence in virtually every trial they were called to give testimony for.
How many people were sentenced to death due to their false testimony? Watch this video for the full story:
Once this information was released, new DNA tests were conducted to determine that the FBI hair experts convicted innocent individuals.
New DNA tests were conducted on the hair to show that one sample wasn’t even human – it came from a dog. That’s right. FBI trained analysts couldn’t even distinguish human hairs from canine hairs.
"I don’t believe forensic science truly understood the significance of microscopic hair comparison, and it wasn’t until [DNA] that we learned that 11 percent of the time, two hairs can be microscopically similar yet come from different people,” said Dwight E. Adams, who directed the FBI lab from 2002 to 2006.
Sadly, this misunderstanding put innocent people on death row. Santae A. Tribble, now 51, was convicted of killing a taxi driver in 1978, and Kirk L. Odom, now 49, was convicted of a sexual assault in 1981. Both are now exonerated of their crimes, after spending over twenty years in prison. As of April 2015, there are still 1200 cases involving hair analysis to be re-investigated, according to The Washington Post.
Donald E. Gates, now 64, served 27 years for the rape and murder of a Georgetown University student based on false testimony that his hair was found on the victim’s body.
In 2009, DNA testing exonerated Gates, and yesterday, a federal judge ruled that D.C. police are liable for damages for framing him for rape and murder.
Now the jury must decide how much money to award Gates for surviving 27 years in prison for crimes he never committed.
Here are the details of Gates’s case, as reported by the Washington Post:
- Jurors found that two D.C. homicide detectives fabricated all or part of a confession purportedly made by the wrongly accused Donald E. Gates to a police informant.
- The detectives also withheld other evidence from Gates before he was convicted in the fatal attack on a 21-year-old Georgetown University student in Rock Creek Park.
- Following Wednesday’s verdict, Gates’s attorneys said the detectives’ conduct warranted investigation into their handling of other cases.
- The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District declined to comment on the verdict or whether the decision exposes the detectives to criminal investigation for perjury.
- The verdict opens a new round of accountability for Gates’s wrongful conviction, which earlier triggered reviews by the U.S. attorney’s office, the Justice Department and the FBI.
- The jury’s decision means the District could be ordered to pay millions of dollars for misconduct by homicide detectives Ronald S. Taylor and Norman Brooks, now retired.
- A third defendant — now-retired lieutenant John Harlow — was cleared by the jury.
Gates’s case is the first federal civil rights claim for damages involving a wrongful conviction in D.C. By law, jurors have no limit as to how much money they can award him in compensatory damages once the case winds up in civil court.
“Justice is on the way to being fulfilled...It’s one of the happiest days of my life,” Gates said on Wednesday after hearing the federal judge’s decision.
Gates did receive nearly $1.4 million from the U.S. government under a federal law that grants $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment to innocent individuals who waive claims against federal officials.
However, he could be awarded much more if the D.C. government is found liable under the city’s Unjust Imprisonment Act. In fact, there is no cap to how much he could receive under this particular law.
As a comparison, Kirk L. Odom, wrongfully imprisoned for more than 22 years for rape and robbery, was also from D.C.
He received $9.2 million for his time in prison – where he reportedly contracted HIV from several prison rapes.
Odom was 18 years old when he was wrongfully convicted. Upon receiving word of the award money, he stated: “They can’t pay me enough money to give me back the years that I’ve lost.” He is currently trying to reconnect with his adult daughter, who was born weeks before the trial that sent him to prison for 22 years.
Although Gates has already received some monetary compensation, it stands to reason that no matter how much more he is awarded, he’d agree with Odom: money doesn’t give him those twenty-seven years back.
Gates and Odom have joined Kirk Bloodsworth, the first man to be exonerated from death row by DNA evidence, in being part of the Innocence Project, a program that helps exonerate those wrongfully convicted through DNA testing.
Kirk Bloodsworth explains the program further in this video:
The Washington Post has reported that Odom and Gates are two of five D.C. men wrongly convicted of rape or murder based on erroneous forensics and testimony by an elite unit of FBI hair experts.
So, if you were Donald Gates, how much money would you like to receive if you were locked up for 27 years for crimes you didn’t commit? Sound off below!
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC its affiliates, or its employees.
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