The Norfolk Four

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

EVERY ONCE in a while, a case comes along that defies all logic. Why, for example, would anyone who is innocent plead guilty to a savage rape and murder? How could a jury convict someone when not one scintilla of evidence points to his involvement? How could prosecutors press a case against a group of defendants when a convicted murderer has said he acted alone - and DNA evidence backs him up?

Such are the sordid facts in the case of the Norfolk Four, four sailors convicted of the 1997 rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko in Norfolk, Va. Three of the men were released from prison last year after then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) commuted their life sentences to time served. (The fourth man was convicted only on the rape charge and had served his sentence by the time Mr. Kaine acted.)

The commutations were a positive step but far short of the full vindication called for by four former Virginia attorneys general from both parties, 30 retired FBI agents and scores of former prosecutors and investigators who studied the case. Freedom, while welcome, has not been kind to the Norfolk Four. Because the convictions were not erased, the men are forced to register as sex offenders and disclose their prison records on employment applications.

A new development warrants reexamination of the matter. Last month, Robert Glenn Ford, the lead homicide detective on the Norfolk Four case, was convicted of lying to the FBI and extorting money from defendants in exchange for falsely testifying that they had cooperated in investigations and thus deserved reduced sentences. This was not the first time Mr. Ford had been in trouble. He was once demoted after being accused of trying to coerce confessions from juvenile suspects.

It is not clear whether the U.S. attorney's office that prosecuted Mr. Ford looked into his handling of the Norfolk Four case. The events that led to Mr. Ford's conviction occurred between 2003 and 2007 - long after the Norfolk Four were convicted. Prosecutors should reveal the results of such an inquiry - or conduct one if it has not taken place.

After being freed, the four filed cases in state and federal court reasserting their innocence. They have lost their appeals in Virginia's notoriously stingy state courts; they are awaiting a decision from a federal appeals court. The commonwealth's attorney in Norfolk should review the case to determine whether the false confessions, absence of physical evidence and Mr. Ford's conviction should prompt the state to admit that it erred in prosecuting the men. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) should also take another look. The duty of the state and its prosecutors is not to secure convictions but to seek justice. There remain grave doubts whether this has been done in the case of the Norfolk Four.


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