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Clemency for the Norfolk Four

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

THE TIME has come for Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to act on a clemency petition filed by four Navy sailors known as the Norfolk Four.

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The sailors -- Derek E. Tice, Joseph Dick Jr., Danial J. Williams and Eric C. Wilson -- were convicted of the 1997 rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko in Norfolk. Three were sentenced to life in prison; Mr. Wilson, who was convicted only of rape, has served his sentence and is free. Strong evidence has emerged that the four are innocent. Each gave confessions that law enforcement experts believe were coerced and that contradicted forensic evidence; no physical evidence linked any of the four to the crime scene; and another man, Omar A. Ballard, has confessed, asserting that he acted alone. Mr. Ballard's DNA matched the only DNA evidence found at the scene, and he bragged about the crime in a letter to an acquaintance, who turned him in. He later told police that "them four people who opened their mouths is stupid." He is serving a life sentence.

It is not unusual for those held behind bars -- especially those facing life sentences or the death penalty -- to argue their innocence. It is extraordinary, however, that a diverse group of lawyers, former prosecutors and investigators has taken up the cause of the Norfolk Four and their quest for a pardon. Notably, four former Virginia attorneys general, from both parties, said in January that they believe the four men are innocent.

Yesterday, on the third anniversary of the filing of the Norfolk Four clemency petition, two former agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigations spoke on behalf of themselves and 28 other retired agents who studied the case and concluded that "a tragic mistake" had been made. "After careful review of the evidence, we have arrived at one unequivocal conclusion: The Norfolk Four are innocent," said Jay Cochran Jr., a 27-year FBI veteran and former assistant director of the agency.

Every now and again, the criminal justice system breaks down and fails to produce a fair and true judgment. When the appeals process fails to correct this injustice, it falls to the chief executive of a state to step in. In Virginia, there is overwhelming evidence that this is one of those times.


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