A Decision for Mr. Kaine

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

VIRGINIA GOV. Timothy M. Kaine (D) granted a ceremonial pardon the other day to Grace Sherwood, convicted of witchcraft three centuries ago in what is now Virginia Beach, after a trial that consisted of throwing her in the river to see if she floated. "With 300 years of hindsight, we all certainly can agree that trial by water is an injustice," Mr. Kaine wrote in a letter. Unfortunately, some modern trials in the commonwealth have seemed perilously close to trial by water -- and the results of one of them have been sitting on Mr. Kaine's desk since before he took office. He cannot let it fester.

Four young men stand convicted of the rape and murder in Norfolk of Michelle Moore-Bosko in 1997. The four were all serving in the Navy. All confessed their roles but now claim innocence. At least on the surface, that claim seems compelling, for reasons that should have been clear at the time they faced charges. No physical evidence connects any of them with the crime. The one man unambiguously implicated in the killing by DNA evidence says none of the four was involved -- as he did at the time of his initial confession.

What makes the case hard is that nearly all the evidence that seems to exonerate the four was available at the outset. What's more, two of the defendants pleaded guilty. It would take a bold act by a governor to upset guilty pleas and jury verdicts based on evidence that isn't new. Yet the record assembled by lawyers for Joseph Dick Jr., Derek Tice, Danial Williams and Eric Wilson is sufficiently powerful that it needs either to be rebutted or remedied. These men -- with the exception of Mr. Wilson, who was convicted only of the rape and has been released -- are serving life sentences.

Police never seem to have had much evidence of a gang rape -- other than confessions that took place when one suspect after the next was threatened with capital punishment. Indeed, charges had to be dropped against three other sailors who stood their ground and didn't confess. The physical evidence at the scene indicated a single attacker. DNA from Omar Ballard showed a match; while police garnered confessions from the sailors, Mr. Ballard wrote to a friend, "Guess who did that Me. HA HA." He stood by that account when police approached him, saying that "them four people that opened their mouths is stupid." But later, he changed his tune and supported the gang-rape story -- and authorities spared him the death penalty, too. What does he say now? "None of the other individuals who were charged with raping or killing Michelle were there or involved in any way," he said in an affidavit.

The state parole board is conducting an investigation. But lawyers for the inmates have had little sign of activity from this inquiry. The governor needs to deal with this issue promptly. Trial by water is not the most pressing injustice the state faces.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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