Friday, August 7, 2009

Major news: three of the Norfolk Four pardoned

Virginia Governor Sets Free 3 Sailors Convicted in Rape and Murder



RICHMOND, Va. — Gov. Tim Kaine on Thursday ordered the release of three sailors who were convicted in a 1997 murder and rape case that had become a national cause célèbre as an example of wrongful convictions based on coerced confessions.

The three, who with another sailor were known as the Norfolk Four, were charged in the rape and murder of the wife of a fellow sailor. But after someone else confessed to the crime and the men remained in prison, their plight attracted a long list of supporters, including former judges, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and even some of the jurors in their cases.

Citing “grave doubts” about the men’s complicity in the crimes, Governor Kaine issued a partial pardon to the three sailors — Derek Tice, Danial Williams and Joseph Dick Jr. — which reduced their life sentences to time served and permits them to leave prison in the coming days.

A fourth sailor, Eric Wilson, was not pardoned because he was released in 2005 after serving eight and a half years for the rape conviction. Mr. Wilson was not charged with murder.

The men had been convicted in the slaying of Michelle Moore-Bosko, 18, of Pittsburgh, who had recently moved to Norfolk and secretly married her longtime boyfriend, William Bosko.

“The petitioners have not conclusively established their innocence, and therefore an absolute pardon is not appropriate,” Mr. Kaine said. “However, I conclude that the petitioners have raised substantial doubts about their convictions and the propriety of their continued detention.”

The sailors confessed after they were told they had failed lie detector tests and were threatened with the death penalty if they did not cooperate. But they quickly recanted.

Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, noted that the confessions contradicted forensic evidence, that no physical evidence linked the four men to the crime scene and that another man, Omar A. Ballard, had confessed, asserting that he had acted alone.

Moreover, Mr. Ballard’s DNA matched the only DNA evidence found at the scene, and he bragged about the crime in a letter to an acquaintance, who notified the authorities. Mr. Ballard was later also convicted of Ms. Moore-Bosko’s rape and murder and is serving time. The tidy appearance of Ms. Moore-Bosko’s apartment and the pattern of her wounds also suggested a single assailant.

Last November, 30 former agents of the F.B.I. called for a full pardon of the four sailors. They joined four former Virginia attorneys general; 13 jurors from two of the sailors’ trials; 12 former state and federal judges and prosecutors; and a past president of the Virginia Bar Association. In opting for a partial pardon, the governor did not overturn the men’s convictions, so they will still have to register as sex offenders and will have criminal records.

It is not clear where the men will go upon their release since their families live in areas where sex offenders are not permitted.

Earlier this year, the best-selling author John Grisham announced that he was writing a screenplay about the case.

“I never doubted his innocence,” Larry Tice said of his son, Derek. After driving four hours from Clayton, N.C., to hear the governor’s decision, Mr. Tice said he had ambivalent feelings.

“I guess we wished the governor could recognize the innocence of these men, but we are happy our son is finally coming home,” he said, adding that he planned to barbecue a pig for Derek. “It’s one thing I know will make him smile.”

Mr. Kaine’s decision angered relatives of the victim.

“The governor has chosen to ignore the facts and history of this case by granting a conditional pardon to these confessed and convicted rapists and murderers,” said Ms. Moore-Bosko’s mother, Carol Moore, of Pittsburgh, in a written statement. “There is absolutely zero new evidence or information to justify this decision.”

Lynne Ragazzini, a juror in the first trial for Mr. Tice, said, “The people that I had on the jury with me, we went over everything thoroughly. We made an informed decision at the time.”

The lack of forensic evidence had been troubling, Ms. Ragazzini said, but jurors were also told that there were children in the house the night before the murder and there were no fingerprints of theirs in the house, either.

Lawyers for the sailors continued to argue that their clients had been unfairly convicted.

“These young men, who were serving their country, were railroaded by coerced confessions,” said George H. Kendall, a lawyer with Holland & Knight, which worked for the last five years with Hogan & Hartson and Skadden Arps to clear the men.

Mr. Kendall added that the jurors had never been told that the detective who had elicited the confessions had previously been reprimanded for having elicited false ones.

If Virginia wants to avoid false confessions in the future, Mr. Kendall said, all criminal defendants should be given access to counsel before being interrogated and all interrogations should be recorded in full. The sailors’ confessions were recorded but not their full interrogations.