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