By Tom Jackman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 7, 2009
Three members of the "Norfolk 4" -- sailors serving life in prison for a 1997 rape and murder -- should walk free by Friday after Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine granted them conditional pardons Thursday for crimes to which they all had confessed.
The pardons of Danial Williams, 37; Derek Tice, 39; and Joseph Dick, 33, culminated a four-year campaign for clemency based on the sailors' claims that they were coerced into falsely admitting their involvement, that the details they provided were wrong and that there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime. A fourth sailor, Eric Wilson, 33, served more than eight years in prison and has been released. He was not pardoned.
Kaine (D) said he was simply reducing the remaining three sailors' sentences to time served and not declaring their innocence. Kaine said he decided that the men "have not conclusively established their innocence and therefore that an absolute pardon is not appropriate."
While the case against the sailors was pending in 1999, another man confessed to the slaying, and his DNA matched the genetic evidence left at the scene. He later pleaded guilty, was sentenced to life in prison and said he acted alone. But Norfolk police and prosecutors continued to press their case against the four sailors and obtained guilty pleas or convictions for each of them.
The men were convicted in the slaying of Michelle Moore-Bosko, 18, of Pittsburgh, who had recently moved to Norfolk and secretly married her longtime boyfriend, William Bosko. Her parents, Jack and Carol Moore, were adamantly opposed to clemency and, after listening to the defendants' confessions, continue to think they are guilty.
The Moores said Thursday that they were devastated. "It is just unbelievable," said Carol Moore, who sat through three murder trials for men she thought had killed her daughter, one of whom apologized to her in court. "He's going to let these men out. They're breathing. They're out there visiting their family. Where do we go? We go to the cemetery."
In a prepared statement, the Moores added that Kaine had "chosen to ignore the facts and history of this case" and that it "is truly shameful and a disservice to the citizens of Virginia and our family that the decisions of the courts have been ignored and confessed rapists and murderers are being set free."
The effort to exonerate the Norfolk 4 was led by the Innocence Project, a group that works to clear people who are wrongly convicted. The organization worked with lawyers from three large firms who took on the project for free. They filed their first clemency petitions in November 2005, in the waning months of then-Gov. Mark Warner's administration, and periodically increased the pressure with affidavits and news conferences from jurors, forensic experts, FBI agents and former attorneys general who said the men should be cleared.
A television documentary about the case aired in 2001, and last year a book, "The Wrong Guys," explored the case and the concept of false confessions. In the book, the sailors give their accounts of how they confessed to something they didn't do. Experts have long examined how, under the right physical and psychological circumstances, suspects can admit to acts they didn't commit, but trial juries frequently reject such arguments.
Last month, author John Grisham said he was writing a screenplay in hopes of developing a movie about the case. The Moores theorized that Grisham's campaign contributions to Kaine helped spur his decision.
Kaine responded, "This has nothing to do with politics." He said he sympathized with the Moores. Carol Moore said she and her husband were not allowed to speak with Kaine but met briefly with Mark Rubin, the governor's counselor, at their home last month.
George Kendall, one of the lead lawyers in the case, said, "We're delighted that our guys are going home." But, he said, "it's bittersweet" because Kaine did not grant the sailors a full pardon. He said the governor's actions place the men on parole for 20 years and require them to register as convicted sex offenders wherever they go.
Bosko, a sailor, was at sea when his new bride was attacked in their Norfolk apartment. When he returned home July 8, 1997, he found "Shelly" dead on the floor of their bedroom. She had been raped and repeatedly stabbed in the chest.
Williams, who lived across the hall, was arrested first, and his erroneous confession -- he said he had beaten Moore-Bosko with his fist and a shoe -- sparked a gradual chain reaction of arrests, accusations and more confessions. At one point, Norfolk police arrested seven sailors and charged them all with capital murder, but the DNA found at the scene did not match any of them.
Then an inmate, Omar Ballard, wrote a letter to a friend confessing that he had killed Moore-Bosko. Detectives interviewed him and took a sample of his DNA, and it matched the DNA at the crime scene. He eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and said he acted alone. He was in prison for a similar, but nonfatal, rape of another woman.
Despite Ballard's plea, Norfolk police and prosecutors continued to pursue their cases against Tice, Dick, Wilson and Williams, who had pleaded guilty in a deal to avoid the death penalty. Charges against three other sailors were dismissed.
Dick pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, also avoiding the death penalty. He then testified against Tice, who eventually was convicted of capital murder but not given a death sentence. Wilson was acquitted of murder but convicted of rape.
A Norfolk police spokesman said Thursday that the department had no comment on the case. The lead detective accused of coercing the confessions, Glen Ford, has retired.
Since Kaine took office in January 2006, he has issued four other conditional pardons, three absolute pardons and 77 simple pardons -- official forgiveness after a person completes a sentence -- state officials said. The Norfolk 4 had requested absolute pardons -- given when a governor is convinced of someone's innocence.
"Have they demonstrated that they were not involved?" Kaine asked at a news conference. "At the end of the day, I could not reach that conclusion." Instead, the governor decided that Williams, Dick and Tice had significantly less involvement than Ballard and commuted their sentences "to a more appropriate term."