The Disturbing Case of the Norfolk Four

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Steve Helber / AP

Retired FBI agent Jay Cochran, at the podium, speaks during a news conference on the rape and murder convictions of the Norfolk Four

In 1997, four sailors confessed to the brutal rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko, the wife of a U.S. Navy man, in Norfolk, Va. After their conviction, however, they said their confessions were coerced and false. Now 26 former FBI agents have released the text of a letter they wrote in July asking Virginia governor Tim Kaine to grant a full pardon to the so-called Norfolk Four, calling the convictions a "tragic mistake."

When veteran FBI agent Larry Smith first heard of the case, he gave police detectives the benefit of the doubt. Smith was skeptical that so many men would confess to a crime they didn't commit. But after reading the case material, Smith felt that the confessions had never been properly checked against the evidence of the case. If they had been, says Smith, the confessions by Joseph Dick, Derek Tice, Danial Williams and Eric Wilson would have been immediately discounted. "The confession should not be the end of the investigation," says Smith. "You should corroborate the facts and circumstances of the confessions with the crime scene."

In their letter, Smith and 25 other former FBI agents point to the fact that physical evidence connects only one person to the crime scene, a man named Omar Ballard, whose DNA was found in the murdered woman's apartment. Ballard is serving prison time for this and another crime. Ballard's confession is the only one consistent with the physical evidence, wrote the former agents.

The agents took up the convicted sailors' cause after Frank Stokes, a 30-year veteran of the FBI who specialized in violent crimes, first looked at the case three years ago. Stokes felt the convictions were obviously a miscarriage of justice and asked one of the case lawyers to speak to the Richmond chapter of the Society of Former Special Agents, many of whom signed the letter to Governor Kaine. "It is the most egregious thing I've seen," says Stokes.

Along with the DNA evidence connecting only Ballard to the murder, the former FBI agents believe the autopsy report on the victim and the physical condition of the crime scene are consistent with a "single-offender crime." Lawyers contend that the sailors confessed under high-pressure interrogation tactics that included lies and threats of the death penalty. "In rare cases," wrote the retired agents, powerful interrogation techniques "can produce false confessions." The investigative confirmations required to ensure confessions are reliable were not done in this case, wrote the agents.

All of these developments pain the family of Michelle Moore-Bosko. For their part, they do not believe the men invented their involvement under duress. For the family, every new press release about the Norfolk Four reopens old wounds. "Let my poor baby rest," her father, John Moore, told the Washington Post on Monday.

The case received national attention three years ago when pro bono lawyers affiliated with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, put together a petition for clemency to present to then governor Mark Warner. The petition has since moved to Kaine's desk. Of the four men, three are still behind bars, having exhausted all other legal means to appeal their case. A judge overturned the conviction of one of the sailors, Derek Tice, on Nov. 27, 2006. But that ruling was later reversed by a higher court. Eric Wilson served all eight and a half years of his sentence for rape and was released in 2005 but is still seeking clemency to vacate his conviction.

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