Fi­nally over

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

We learned Mon­day that the city of Nor­folk has agreed to pay the for­mer sailors known as the Nor­folk Four $4.9 mil­lion for their wrong­ful con­vic­tions in the 1997 rape and mur­der of Michelle Moore-Bosko. The state has also agreed to pay the four — Eric Wil­son, Da­nial Wil­liams, Joseph Dick, and Derek Tice — $3.5 mil­lion.

The case at­tracted na­tional at­ten­tion. Many peo­ple found the ev­i­dence used in the con­vic­tions to be weak and in­sub­stan­tial. As time pro­gressed, grow­ing num­bers of ad­vo­cates came to be­lieve the young men’s claims that they had been co­erced into mak­ing false con­fes­sions. A clemency pe­ti­tion filed dur­ing Gov. Mark Warner’s term was granted by Tim Kaine’s ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2009. Kaine re­leased three of the in­di­vid­u­als from jail but did not is­sue par­dons to clear their records. Last year, af­ter DNA ev­i­dence linked the mur­der to a fifth man, Omar Bal­lard, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe is­sued ab­so­lute par­dons to all four.

The four men claim they pleaded guilty to the mur­der be­cause they were ma­nip­u­lated and threat­ened with the death penalty. One of the four says he was shoved and pushed into a cor­ner. Not one of the con­fes­sions matched the other three. Bal­lard’s state­ment was the only one to con­tain in­for­ma­tion that matched what was found at the crime scene. But the de­tec­tive who did the ques­tion­ing, Robert Glenn Ford, had a rep­u­ta­tion for get­ting con­fes­sions any way he could. And he wanted the Nor­folk Four to con­fess. One observer has likened their in­ter­ro­ga­tions to a Span­ish In­qui­si­tion-type trial. Ford has since been dis­cred­ited. He was con­victed in 2011 of ex­tor­tion and ly­ing to the FBI in un­re­lated cases.

About a decade ago, Richard Cullen, a for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney for the East­ern Dis­trict of Vir­ginia and Vir­ginia at­tor­ney gen­eral, was asked by lawyers for the four to look into the case. Cullen was stunned by what he found, not­ing that “It’s the worst mis­car­riage of jus­tice I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced in my 40 years as a lawyer.”

As Cullen has said, hu­man er­ror is some­times in­evitable in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and DNA has helped cor­rect many hon­est mis­takes, but, he says there was noth­ing ac­ci­den­tal about this — it was an in­ten­tional mis­use of au­thor­ity. “Think about that, a pow­er­ful po­lice­man pur­pose­fully put men in prison that he knew were in­no­cent. It’s stun­ning.” In­deed it is.

The money awarded to Wil­son, Wil­liams, Dick, and Tice won’t give these men back those lost years. But hope­fully it will help them to fi­nally close this chap­ter of their lives. And re­mind all of us that con­fes­sions are not al­ways iron­clad ev­i­dence of guilt.


For­mer sailors Eric Wil­son (from left), Da­nial Wil­liams, Joe Dick, and Derek Tice

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