Clear the Norfolk 4

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

RARE IS the case that unites prosecutors and defense lawyers, Republicans and Democrats. Rarer still is a case that finds such diverse parties calling for the pardon of multiple defendants convicted of rape and murder.

That's what has happened in the case of the so-called Norfolk 4. On Friday, Richard Cullen, a Republican, and Anthony F. Troy, a Democrat, stood before microphones in Richmond to plead for the pardon of four sailors who were convicted in connection with the 1997 rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko in Norfolk. Mr. Cullen and Mr. Troy are former Virginia attorneys general; Mr. Cullen served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia during the first Bush administration. They were joined by E. Tazewell Ellett, a Republican past president of the Virginia Bar Association and now a partner at the Hogan & Hartson law firm. Several other well-respected lawyers and former judges also have rallied to the side of the Norfolk 4.

Why would celebrated members of the legal establishment risk their reputations for four sailors who are neither friends nor family? Because of overwhelming evidence that Derek E. Tice, Joseph Dick Jr., Danial J. Williams and Eric C. Wilson are innocent.

The four sailors found themselves behind bars after initially admitting to the crime, in large part because of coerced confessions and after being threatened with the death penalty if they did not cooperate. From the start, serious inconsistencies suggested the confessions were not legitimate. Their accounts did not mesh with the evidence. Their stories contradicted each other. Above all, police found no physical evidence tying the four defendants to the murder scene. Three of them -- Mr. Tice, Mr. Dick and Mr. Williams -- face the prospect of life imprisonment. Only Mr. Wilson, who was convicted only of rape, is free.

The evidence shows that Ms. Moore-Bosko was raped and killed by a single assailant, Omar Ballard. Mr. Ballard wrote to a friend about the crime and boasted, "Guess who did that. Me. HA HA." When approached after police learned of the letter, Mr. Ballard claimed sole responsibility for the crime and said that "them four people who opened their mouths is stupid." Mr. Ballard is the only suspect whose DNA was found at the crime scene. He is serving a life sentence.

The four sailors filed clemency petitions more than two years ago. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said he would not rule on them until all legal avenues had been exhausted. That time has come. On Friday, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed a lower-court ruling and reinstated Mr. Tice's conviction. The court essentially rejected Mr. Tice's contention that he'd received ineffective assistance of counsel during his earlier proceedings. The court ruled on an important but narrow question of law; it did not rule on Mr. Tice's guilt or innocence or that of the others. Mr. Kaine should, and he should do it soon.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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