Wednesday, November 12, 2008

New York Times reports that 30 former FBI agents go to bat to have four wrongly convicted men released from prison

Every once in a while, an injustice regarding a man falsely accused or convicted of rape (and in this case murder as well) attracts high profile attention. It happened in the Duke lacrosse case (but, at least initially, most of the attention in that case was from persons rushing to judgment to assume their guilt).

The following is a New York Times article that reports on the efforts of 30 former FBI agents to have four men they claim are innocent released from prison. It is difficult to fathom from reading this balanced account that these four men could be guilty.

One of the retired agents summed it up in a way that is impossible to refute: “We are not bleeding hearts, and we don’t take this type of public action lightly . . . . However, we also believe that law enforcement has an obligation to protect the most innocent from wrongful conviction.”


Retired F.B.I. Agents Join Cause of 4 Sailors


RICHMOND, Va. — F.B.I. agents rarely comment on criminal convictions. It is even more uncommon for them to argue that someone has been wrongly convicted.

But on Monday, 30 former agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation took up the cause of four sailors, known as the Norfolk Four, who were convicted in a 1997 rape and murder.

Arguing that DNA and forensic evidence points to a prison inmate who has confessed as the sole perpetrator of the crimes, they called on Gov. Tim Kaine to pardon the sailors.

“After careful review of the evidence we have arrived at one unequivocal conclusion: The Norfolk Four are innocent,” said Jay Cochran, a former assistant director of the F.B.I. and former special agent who served at the bureau for 27 years. “We believe a tragic mistake has occurred in the case of these four Navy men, and we are calling on Governor Kaine to grant them immediate pardons.”

The former agents join a long list of unusual supporters, including four former Virginia attorneys general; 12 former state and federal judges and prosecutors; and a past president of the Virginia Bar Association, who have called for the men to be pardoned.

In January 2006, 13 jurors from two of the sailors’ trials signed letters and affidavits saying they now believed the men were innocent.

The sailors initially confessed to the crime after being threatened with the death penalty if they did not cooperate. But they quickly recanted. Three of the four — Derek Tice, Danial Williams and Joseph Dick Jr. — are serving life sentences in Virginia prisons for the rape and murder. A fourth man, Eric Wilson, was released in 2005 after serving eight and a half years for the rape conviction.

After the sailors were arrested, another man, Omar Ballard, confessed that he committed the crimes. His DNA matched evidence from the scene, while none of the arrested sailors, who numbered seven at one point, had DNA that matched the evidence.

Mr. Ballard had a history of violence against women in the Norfolk neighborhood where the victim, Michelle Moore-Bosko lived. Mr. Ballard was convicted in her rape and murder, along with two other sexual assaults in her neighborhood.

The former agents, 26 of whom sent the governor a letter in July calling for a pardon for the sailors, said the forensic and crime scene evidence showed that only one person sexually assaulted and killed the victim. Mr. Ballard knew the victim and her husband because they had opened the door to their apartment and rescued him when he was being chased by a crowd of men in reaction to an assault on a woman about two weeks before Ms. Moore-Bosko was killed.
“We are not bleeding hearts, and we don’t take this type of public action lightly,” said Mr. Cochran, who, like the other dozen agents gathered at a Richmond hotel for a news conference, was wearing a blue button that said “Free the Norfolk Four.” “However, we also believe that law enforcement has an obligation to protect the most innocent from wrongful conviction.”

Ms. Moore-Bosko’s mother, Carol Moore of Pittsburgh, could not be reached for comment.

But in a statement in January, she said: “Derek Tice and the Norfolk Four confessed to the rape and murder of our daughter. These men are guilty and we pray that our family will not have to suffer through any more appeals.”

The governor’s office declined to comment on the case except to say that it was still reviewing the clemency petition.

George H. Kendall, a lawyer helping with the pardon effort, said that in all likelihood police investigators elicited one false confession and used it and the threat of the death penalty to set off a “domino effect,” resulting in the others.

Serious inconsistencies suggested the confessions were not legitimate, the agents said. The accounts did not mesh with the evidence. The tidy appearance of Ms. Moore-Bosko’s apartment and pattern of her wounds suggested a single assailant, not seven, as the police originally contended. The stories of the four men contradicted one another. Above all, the police found no physical evidence tying the four sailors, a least one of whom lived in Ms. Moore-Bosko’s neighborhood, to the murder scene.

In early 1999, when seven men were in jail awaiting trial in the killing of Ms. Moore-Bosko, Mr. Ballard wrote a letter from prison bragging to a friend that he had committed the crime. He provided a detailed account of the killing and insisted that he had acted alone.

By then, Mr. Williams had pleaded guilty, with an agreement that he would not receive the death penalty. He was not allowed to withdraw his plea. Mr. Dick had made a plea bargain in exchange for testimony against Mr. Tice. Mr. Tice had given a tape-recorded confession, although some details he provided about the crime were inaccurate. Mr. Wilson was charged only with rape.

The other three sailors did not confess, and charges against them were eventually dismissed.

“The governor is really the only person in a position to see the entirety of the evidence regarding these men,” Mr. Kendall said, noting that each defendant had been tried separately.

Moreover, he said the jurors and judges during the trials never heard that the detective who had elicited the confessions had been reprimanded before for having elicited false ones. They also did not hear about Mr. Ballard’s history of sexual assaults in Ms. Moore-Bosko’s neighborhood.

Shaking her head, Rhea Williams, the mother of Danial Williams, said she found it encouraging but emotionally exhausting to hear the F.B.I. agents present their views on the case. As she went to get coffee for her 14-hour drive back to Owosso, Mich., her eyes filled with tears.

“The only problem with these things,” Ms. Williams said, “is that we still have to go home without our boys.”