By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Best-selling author John Grisham is joining the controversy over the "Norfolk Four" by writing a screenplay about the four sailors who claim they were wrongly convicted after confessing to the rape and murder of a woman in Virginia's second-largest city in 1997.
Grisham, 54, has written hugely popular novels such as "The Firm," "The Pelican Brief" and "The Runaway Jury," and in 2006 wrote "The Innocent Man," a nonfiction account of an Oklahoma man wrongly convicted of murder. He then joined the board of directors of the Innocence Project, which takes on the cases of prisoners believed to have been wrongly convicted, and became deeply involved in raising money and awareness for Innocence Project cases across the country.
In 2005, the Innocence Project filed clemency petitions on behalf of the Norfolk Four -- Danial Williams, Joseph Dick, Derek Tice and Eric Wilson -- who were convicted in the rape and murder of 18-year-old Michelle Moore-Bosko. Although all four confessed and either pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial, they recanted and claimed their statements were coerced by Norfolk police.
During their prosecutions, another suspect, Omar Ballard, was identified. His DNA matched that left at the murder scene.
The DNA of the other four did not match. Ballard pleaded guilty to murder and has said that he acted alone, but the convictions of the other four men -- who say they did not know Ballard, and did not mention him in their confessions -- stood. Wilson served nearly nine years for rape and the other three are serving life sentences for murder.
Virginia's attorney general has successfully fought the sailors' appeals, pointing to their confessions and the jury verdicts.
A book about the case was published last year, and it has been featured on television and in magazines. Grisham said yesterday in a phone interview that a magazine article first piqued his interest, and the authors of "The Wrong Guys" sent him an advance copy, seeking a quote for the book jacket. The book explores the phenomenon of false confessions, and the convicted sailors explained how they were persuaded to confess to rape and murder.
Grisham, who has a law degree, said he was impressed. He not only provided a quote but also "started toying with the idea of a screenplay," he said.
"It's the most egregious case of wrongful conviction I've seen, and I travel around the country listening to stories about these cases," said Grisham, who lives outside Charlottesville. He said the prosecution "should have been a fairly clear-cut DNA case, involving a man who later pled guilty, and to this day confesses he did it and did it alone."
Grisham said he has written letters to Gov. Tim Kaine (D), whom he knows personally, on behalf of the Norfolk Four. The governor is still considering the request for clemency and has given few signs of how or when he might decide, though he did say last fall in a radio interview that "they're asking for a whole series of confessions . . . to all be discarded. That is a huge request."
Grisham said he hopes to have the screenplay finished by the fall. He does not have a production deal signed, and said that probably wouldn't happen until the first draft of the screenplay is finished. Grisham's screenplay was first reported by the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.
The news of Grisham's involvement further disheartened the parents of Michelle Moore-Bosko, John and Carol Moore of Pittsburgh. After sitting through trials and hearings that began in 1997, and listening to the tape-recorded confessions, they remain convinced that their daughter was gang-raped and then stabbed by eight men. Today is the anniversary of her murder.
In a statement, the Moores wrote: "Our family is devastated to learn that once again, people with inaccurate information and personal agendas are attempting to profit from the tragic death of our daughter. Their lack of genuine compassion for what we have experienced through this never-ending nightmare is overwhelming. Please do not put us through this again."
Grisham said he has "a lot of sympathy for the family of the victim," and noted that he has a friendly relationship with the family of the murder victim in "The Innocent Man."
"Profit has not entered my mind," he said. "This is not about making money. My information is as accurate as anyone's. I'm relying on the records, statements that were made, crime scene analysis."
He said he hoped the project would help the three imprisoned sailors. "You can't forget about those guys. I'm doing what little I can to bring the case to the forefront, to the governor."