The four Navy veterans who were wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a woman in Norfolk in 1997 and served years in prison, were formally pardoned Tuesday by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). Investigations showed the sailors were coerced into falsely admitting their involvement in the crime, and the Norfolk police detective who led the investigation is now in prison for other misconduct on the job.
The pardons are the final chapter in the saga of the “Norfolk Four,” who were convicted and imprisoned in the death of 18-year-old Michelle Moore-Bosko even as another man confessed and matched the DNA at the crime scene. Danial Williams, Derek Tice and Joseph Dick were convicted of rape and murder and given life sentences, and a fourth sailor, Eric Wilson, was convicted of rape. Williams, Tice and Dick were conditionally pardoned and released by then-Gov. Timothy Kaine (D) in 2009, while Wilson had already been released.
But Kaine had stopped short of clearing their names, and the sailors continued to seek full pardons and freedom from being permanently classified as sex offenders. McAuliffe took that step Tuesday after a federal judge last year ruled that they were actually innocent.
“These pardons close the final chapter on a grave injustice that has plagued these 4 men for nearly 20 years,” McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said Tuesday. “While former Governor Kaine had initially granted conditional pardons in the case, more exculpatory information discovered since then and detailed by [U.S. District] Judge John Gibney during exhaustive evidentiary proceedings indicate that absolute pardons are appropriate.”
In a press release, defendant Wilson said, “I speak for all four of us in expressing our deepest thanks to Governor McAuliffe, who has given us our lives back with these full pardons. We have been haunted by these wrongful convictions for twenty years, which have created profound pain, hardships, and stress for each of us and our families. We now look forward to rebuilding our reputations and our lives.”
Carol Moore, the mother of the victim, said Tuesday, “It’s hard to believe that, hearing the confessions and knowing the details of this case, these men were not involved with the murder of our daughter. The governor and the judicial system who worked so hard to free these killers will have it on their conscience if any of them commit another violent crime.”
The case focused renewed attention on the issue of false confessions, in which subjects admit to crimes they didn’t commit, and was the focus of a television documentary and a book, “The Wrong Guys.” Pressure, misinformation and prolonged interrogation by Norfolk police, led by Detective Robert Glenn Ford, led one man, then another, then another, to admit killing Moore-Bosko, though they had details wrong about the crime and the scene did not indicate a large number of attackers.
Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor who wrote the book “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong,” said he hoped Virginia took “meaningful steps to make sure this never happens again,” including requiring all interrogations be videotaped and developing model policies for interrogations. “We have had too many false confessions in Virginia,” Garrett said, “and it is high time that we took action to prevent these tragic coerced confessions leading to wrongful convictions of the innocent and the guilty going free.”
Michelle Moore-Bosko, a native of Pittsburgh, had secretly married her high school sweetheart, Bill Bosko, in Norfolk in April 1997, less than a year after they’d graduated from high school. Three months later, while Bill Bosko was out at sea, Michelle was raped and stabbed to death in their apartment.
Their neighbor, Danial Williams, was the first suspect, and he eventually told police he had killed Moore-Bosko with his fist and a shoe, though she had been stabbed to death and the bent knife was laying near her body. Williams then implicated other sailors, including Tice, Dick and Wilson. There were no fingerprints, DNA or any physical evidence tying the sailors to the crime. The apartment, which Moore-Bosko had cleaned in anticipation of her husband’s return, was still tidy with no sign of forced entry.
At one point, Norfolk authorities arrested seven sailors and charged them all with capital murder, but the DNA at the scene did not match any of them. In 1999, inmate Omar Ballard wrote a letter to a friend confessing he had committed the crime. His DNA matched the crime scene DNA, he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and said he acted alone. He knew Moore-Bosko and had been on a violent rampage in the neighborhood for weeks. But Norfolk police and prosecutors continued to press their cases against four of the sailors — three provided alibis and were cleared.
Williams and Dick, threatened with the death penalty, eventually pleaded guilty and Dick testified against the others in two trials, which were moved to Alexandria, Va., from Norfolk because of pretrial publicity. Tice was convicted of capital murder but not given a death sentence; Wilson was acquitted of murder but convicted of rape and served more than eight years in prison.
The Innocence Project took on the case and filed clemency petitions for the “Norfolk 4” in 2005. The push on behalf of the four convicted men was repulsive to the victim’s parents, John and Carol Moore of Pittsburgh. They had sat through hearings and trials, they had listened to the tape recorded confessions, and they were convinced that seven sailors had committed a gang rape and murder along with Ballard. “Unless you were there in those courtrooms,” Carol Moore said, “there is no way anyone can understand the way we do.”
Even after the sailors were conditionally pardoned in 2009, the Moores were convinced they were guilty. “It is just unbelievable,” Carol Moore said then.
The lawyers for the Norfolk Four continued to press for full clemency, and to investigate the Norfolk police handling of the case. They found that Norfolk police had information pointing to Ballard as committing another rape at the same apartment complex within two weeks of Moore-Bosko’s slaying.
In 2010, the lead detective, Ford, was convicted of receiving payments from criminals in exchange for getting them freed on bond or helping reduce their sentences. He was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison.
Last year, U.S. District Court Judge John Gibney held evidentiary hearings on the case because he recognized “the wrongful convictions have continuing consequences.” Wilson, for example, was unable to adopt his stepson because he was still a convicted sex offender. “It is time for the Commonwealth to free these men of the continuing shackles of their conviction,” Gibney wrote last September. “By any measure, the evidence shows the defendants’ innocence…no sane human being could find them guilty.”
In October, Gibney vacated the convictions of Dick and Williams after the Virginia attorney general’s office finally conceded error in the case. In December, the state announced it would no longer pursue prosecutions against Dick and Williams and dismissed all charges against Tice.
“Today is such a wonderful day for these men,” said lawyer Donald Salzman, who represented Williams, “but it is truly a shame that they have had to fight so hard for so long to be fully pardoned. I hope the Commonwealth will continue to do everything in its power to right this wrong on behalf of these innocent veterans.”
Staff writer Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.