Justice in Norfolk?

Thursday, January 5, 2006

IN HIS LAST weeks in office, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner has done commendable work to improve the integrity of the state's criminal justice system. Before he turns the reins over to Timothy M. Kaine this month, however, he ought to look carefully at the clemency petitions of four young men convicted of a 1997 rape and murder in Norfolk. All four were sailors, serving their country. All four confessed -- two even pleaded guilty -- but have since recanted. And the one man certain to have played a role in the killing backs up their claims of innocence, as he did when he initially confessed.

The case is difficult because little of the evidence is new; almost all of it was available at the time Joseph Dick Jr., Derek Tice, Danial Williams and Eric Wilson were accused of the rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko. Still, the clemency petition on their behalf makes a powerful case for their innocence. The only evidence against them was their confessions, which took place after lengthy interrogations in which each was threatened with the death penalty. The crime scene suggested only a single assailant. None of the physical evidence implicated any of the four men, nor three other sailors who were charged but later dropped from the case.

In fact, the physical evidence points to a single attacker: Omar Ballard, whose DNA was a clear match for evidence found at the scene. And Mr. Ballard takes full responsibility for killing Ms. Bosko. Even as police and prosecutors were focused on the sailors, he wrote a letter to a friend saying of the killing, "Guess who did that Me. HA HA." When police approached him about the letter, he said he acted alone, saying that "them four people that opened their mouths is stupid." Later, Mr. Ballard -- he now says under pressure from authorities -- backed up the gang-rape story; he, too, pleaded guilty and was spared the death penalty. Yet in an affidavit this year, he stated, "None of the other individuals who were charged with raping or killing Michelle were there or involved in any way."

State authorities stand by the convictions, and the victim's family believes justice was done. Jury verdicts and guilty pleas generally warrant deference in the absence of significant new evidence. But the petition makes a strong case that Mr. Warner cannot ignore. For technical reasons, the courts are not open to some of these men, three of whom are serving life sentences. (Mr. Wilson, convicted only of the rape, has been released.) Mr. Warner may not have time to resolve the case, but he does have time to initiate a thorough, independent and expeditious reinvestigation. If Virginia has unjustly locked up four Navy men, this miscarriage of justice should be set right.

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