A D.C. Superior Court judge concluded that DNA evidence exonerates Kevin Martin, who spent 26 years in prison for a 1982 murder.  Martin’s case is the 5th case in the last 5 years that federal prosecutors have acknowledged that the elite FBI forensics unit has made errors that led to a conviction.  U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. joined the defense to call for Martin’s conviction to be vacated and him to be declared innocent of the murder of Ursula Brown.  Prosecutor Machen cited DNA evidence in contradiction with the previous findings of the state’s FBI experts that linked Martin to a hair collected from the crime scene.

Martin, who has always maintained his innocence, was paroled in 2009 and currently lives in San Francisco, but he was able to leave the courthouse with his name finally cleared.

“I am free at last. I am humbled. I never gave up,” Martin said, hugging and high fiving his attorneys. Martin’s younger sister, fiancee, 6-year-old niece, and other family members were also present for the momentous occasion.

Martin, now 50, said, “I just want to live.”

The newest case came as Machen’s office nears the end of a 2 1/2 year audit of all local convictions involving FBI hair matches.  The inquiry was launched after the D.C. Public Defender Service demanded a review.  Since 2009, 5 men, whose cases involve so-called “matches”, have been cleared.  The FBI and the Justice Department have also been undertaking a nationwide review of 2,100 convictions between 1980 and 1990 because of the troubling testimony.

Brown, 19, was abducted on November 1, 1982 after her car was struck from behind on the Anacostia Freeway during a rash of “bump-and-rob” assaults that were plaguing the area.  Her partially clothed body was found later near an elementary school.  She had been sexually assaulted, shot, and stabbed.  Martin, a 17-year-old PCP addict, was arrested and pled guilty to a series of robberies one week after the shocking murder.  Martin always maintained his innocence.  As prosecutors built their case, they told the defense that an FBI expert was prepared to testify at trial that a pubic hair found on Brown’s sneaker matched Martin.  Because of this, what would later be discovered as inaccurate forensics, Martin entered an Alford or no contest plea to manslaughter.  If convicted Martin would have faced multiple life sentences.  Under the plea agreement, Martin acknowledged that the prosecution had enough evidence to secure a conviction, but he maintained his innocence.  In 1984, Martin was sentenced to 35 years to life for manslaughter and robbery.  In the ensuing decades, Martin wrote letters to the judge and defense attorneys proclaiming his innocence.  Bernard Grimm and later the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project took interest in his case.  Martin sought DNA testing in 2001 on the hair, but police said that they lost the evidence in his case.  Police had moved the evidence to a new facility and “lost track” of it.  In 2013, 12 years after requesting DNA tests, the evidence was found.  The hair was never found, but other materials able to be DNA tested were located.

In March, Martin learned that the DNA testing excluded him as the source.  The DNA matched William D. Davidson, who is currently serving 65 years to life for multiple “bump-and-rape” cases.  Davidson claims he was only the lookout in the Brown rape and murder.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ambrosino and defense attorney Grimm wrote that “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 D.C.-area exoneration occurred in late 2009, when Donald E. Gates, then 60, was released after DNA results excluded him of the rape-murder he spent 28 years in prison for.  It was also revealed that prosecutors failed to notify Gates’ defense that the Justice Department had identified problems with the work done by the FBI agent who linked Gates to the hair found at the crime scene.  Following this case, Judge Fred Ugast, with the urging of the D.C. Public Defender Service, ordered that Machen’s office review all cases handled by Michael Malone.  Since then, two more public defender clients, Santae Tribble and Kirk Odom have been exonerated through DNA testing that contradicted the testimony of FBI hair examiners.  In addition, Cleveland Wright’s murder conviction was vacated, but he has not been officially declared innocent despite his requests.

In 2012, facing continued demands, Machen finally ordered a review of all the convictions that relied on FBI hair analysis.

Recently, the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s Office criticized the Justice Department and the FBI for failing to give proper notice to defendants whose cases were affected by misleading expert testimony.  Some of these defendants were executed before being notified.

“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 Public Defender Service.

Read about that report here.


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