Throwing Out a Murder Confession — and Conviction — in Virginia

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Eight years ago, Derek Tice walked out onto his porch and found an entire SWAT team with all their guns pointed at him. He was convicted of murder, twice, in two separate trials, and sentenced to life in prison. To many observers in Norfolk, Virginia, at the time, it had seemed like an open-and-shut case — a tape of Tice's own confession to the 1997 rape and murder of Navy newlywed Michelle Moore Bosko, 18, was played for the juries. But Tice and two other former Navy sailors convicted in the murder later insisted that they had fabricated the confessions after detectives had subjected them to harsh and manipulative questioning. The one other man convicted for the murder — and the only one whose DNA was linked to the crime — has since recanted his claim that the other men were involved and now insists that he acted alone. The whole argument may seem like a stretch — it certainly did and does to the victim's family — but on Wednesday a Virginia judge accepted enough of it to rule that detectives had not honored Tice's right to remain silent and overturned his sentence after almost a decade in custody.

On December 20 at 9:30 a.m., Tice will stand before Judge Everett Martin, Jr., of the Fourth Circuit court of Virginia and, at the judge's discretion, could go free. The rare decision by a Virginia court to overturn a capital murder conviction may bolster the cases of the two other Navy sailors convicted along with Tice. Those men, Danial Williams and Joseph Dick, Jr., are serving life sentences and have filed petitions asking for clemency from Virginia governor Tim Kaine on the grounds that no physical evidence connected them to the scene of the crime and their confessions were false and coerced.

Two years ago, a team of lawyers, approached by the nonprofit Innocence Project, took on the case of the Norfolk-based sailors and spent thousands of pro bono hours analyzing the record and conducting interviews with witnesses, experts and former jurors. In the process, they found numerous inconsistencies between the confessions, essentially the only hard evidence offered in the trials, and the crime scene evidence. For example, Tice had confessed that six men had used a claw and hammer to break open the door to Moore-Bosko's apartment, but police found no signs of forced entry or struggle. Deborah Boardman, a lawyer from the high-powered Washington, D.C., law firm Hogan and Hartson who worked on the case, hopes the judge's decision will confirm for the Governor that the other sailors are innocent and grant them full relief.

Though newly discovered DNA evidence has helped right close to 200 wrongful convictions in recent years, the DNA evidence that failed to link Tice, Williams and Dick to the murder was actually presented to the juries before they were convicted. What they didn't hear anything about, however, was the phenomenon of false confessions; until recently, most juries were in the same position, so it's no wonder that few confessions are ever thrown out.

The decision about Tice, not surprisingly, did not sit well with the parents of the victim, who remain convinced these men killed their daughter, just as they described in their confessions. John and Carol Moore told TIME in an e-mail that they believe the evidence is "abundantly clear" that Tice is guilty of raping and murdering their daughter and don't want to see him go free on a "legal technicality." For them, all these courtroom machinations just dredge up their heartache and forestall closure. "The pain does not go away, not even for a moment."