Police were convinced that Michelle Moore-Bosko, a young Navy wife, was raped and murdered by eight men in her small Norfolk apartment in 1997 while her husband was away at sea. And five of them confessed.
But Bosko's apartment showed no signs of mass attack, and the DNA left behind matched only one man: Omar A. Ballard, a convicted sex offender, who gave details of the killing and said he acted alone.
The four others who confessed, all Navy sailors, later recanted but were convicted anyway, and three of them are serving life sentences. Today, three of "the Norfolk Four," as their attorneys call them, plan to ask outgoing Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) for clemency. The fourth sailor's request is pending.
"Four innocent servicemen are languishing in prison for no reason, other than expediency," said Richard J. Ofshe, a California sociologist and expert in false confessions. "If they were being held by a foreign government, we would send in the Army to get them out."
Michelle Moore-Bosko's family was not pleased by news of the case's resurrection.
"There's no way that they're innocent," said Carol Moore of Pittsburgh, Bosko's mother, who sat through three murder trials and numerous hearings. "No way." She said the tapes of the confessions were played in court. "If you hear the confessions, they're almost exactly the same," Moore said. "They say what they did to my daughter."
Lawyers agreed to represent three of the men for free after learning of the case from the Innocence Project, which champions the cases of inmates it believes were wrongly convicted.
In addition to Ofshe, the lawyers also asked a veteran medical examiner and an experienced criminal profiler -- both frequent prosecution witnesses -- to examine the evidence and the sailors' statements.
"They didn't do it," said Larry McCann, a former special agent for the Virginia State Police. "Their statements are not consistent with the physical evidence, the victim's wounds or the behavioral evidence."
Werner Spitz, a longtime medical examiner from Michigan, looked at the 18-year-old woman's stab wounds and said they were "all in the same direction, same location, similar depth. To say that eight people, or five people, or even two people to have done that, it's like a snowball in hell for everybody to follow the exact same parameter."
The four men -- Danial J. Williams, Joseph J. Dick Jr., Derek E. Tice and Eric C. Wilson -- confessed to Norfolk homicide detective Glen Ford and now say that Ford pressured them with threats of the death penalty during long interrogations.
During Tice's murder trial in 2003, Ford acknowledged that he obtained false confessions from three Norfolk teenagers in an unrelated 1990 robbery-murder. The judge did not allow the jury to hear that testimony, and Tice was convicted of first-degree murder and rape.
The city's chief prosecutor at the time, Charles D. Griffith Jr., now a Circuit Court judge in Norfolk, did not return a phone call yesterday. D.J. Hansen, one of two assistant commonwealth's attorneys who prosecuted the cases, also did not return a call. Valerie Bowen, the other, has left the office and could not be located.
Norfolk police referred an inquiry to the city attorney, Bernard A. Pishko, who said the police are "frequently sued and accused of wrongdoing. We are invariably exonerated, and in fact 98.5 percent of the allegations prove out to be not true."
George H. Kendall, a veteran death penalty defense lawyer, described the four convicted sailors as "good young kids. They wanted to serve their country. They had nothing to hide, they wanted to cooperate and they didn't have the wherewithal to withstand these officers."
Bosko's body was found in her bedroom July 8, 1997, by her husband, William Bosko, also a sailor. Detectives immediately focused on Williams, 25, a neighbor who was married and whose wife had returned home from cancer surgery July 6.
Williams reluctantly admitted to police that he had a crush on Bosko. But for nine hours, he denied raping or killing her.
Then Ford was brought in about 5 a.m. July 9. After several more hours, during which Williams said Ford threatened him with the death penalty, Williams confessed to beating Bosko but did not mention a knife or other participants.
When detectives received the autopsy report that morning, learning that Bosko had been stabbed and strangled, they returned to Williams. After initially denying it, he agreed that he had stabbed Bosko, court records show. He was charged with capital murder.
But several months later, police learned that the DNA at the scene was not his. Ford and other detectives then focused on Williams's part-time roommate, Dick. After a long interrogation, Dick confessed. He, too, was charged with capital murder. Again, the DNA did not match.
Under further questioning, Dick said four men had been present and implicated Wilson and Tice. Wilson said he raped Bosko but did not participate in the killing. Tice admitted a role in both the rape and slaying, then named three other men, who were also arrested. The three denied any involvement.
By July 1998, seven people had been charged with capital murder and rape. Then, in February 1999, Ballard emerged.
Ballard was in prison for raping and assaulting a 14-year-old girl not far from Bosko's apartment, 10 days after Bosko's slaying. In a threatening letter to a Norfolk woman, Ballard wrote, "the next morning Michelle got killed guess who did that. ME Ha Ha."
The woman turned the letter over to Norfolk police, who tested Ballard's DNA. It matched the semen and blood left near Bosko. When Ford confronted Ballard with this, Ballard confessed, in detail, within minutes.
At the end of the interview, Ford asked Ballard about the other seven men in jail. A transcript shows Ballard said he did not know them but said "them four people that opened their mouths is stupid."
Ballard eventually pleaded guilty, but only after making a statement to Ford in 2000 saying that Williams, Dick, Wilson and Tice were with him. In exchange, he avoided a death sentence. Ballard now swears that that statement was "totally false."
Norfolk prosecutors dropped charges against the three men Tice had implicated. Williams, who had pleaded guilty, tried to withdraw his plea, but a Norfolk judge refused. He received a life sentence.
Dick also pleaded guilty, was sentenced to life and agreed to testify against Wilson and Tice. Wilson went to trial in June 1999. He was acquitted of murder but convicted of rape and sentenced to 81/2 years in prison. He was recently released but is reportedly still pursuing clemency. His attorney, Greg D. McCormack, did not return calls.
Tice went to trial twice. His first conviction, in 2000, was overturned. At Tice's second trial, in 2003, Ballard said in his affidavit that he was prepared to testify on Tice's behalf, but Ford, the prosecutors and Tice's attorney, James Broccoletti, told him to say nothing. Broccoletti did not return a call yesterday.
Tice was convicted in a trial that was moved to Alexandria because of the publicity surrounding the case in Norfolk. He received two life sentences.
Dick's attorneys said they have found a former Navy officer who supports Dick's alibi that he was on his ship at the time of the killing. They said police never checked the alibi.