Freedom for the Norfolk Four
On July 8, 1997, 18-year-old Michelle Moore-Bosko was found dead in her apartment. Her husband, sailor William Bosko, had just come ashore from a mission at the U.S. Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia. He discovered her body on the floor of the couple’s bedroom; she had been raped and murdered.
Norfolk Police Arrest a Suspect
Detective Maureen Evans was assigned to the case and began, in standard police practice, by questioning neighbours. According to a PBS Frontline documentary, one of them, an acquaintance of the victim, told Evans she should look at Danial Williams who lived next door.
Detective Evans started to question Williams, a navy machinist. Within half an hour, Williams was asked to take a lie-detector test, which he passed. But, police told him he had failed the polygraph and that he had better make his confession.
Intensive Interrogation Leads to Confession
For the next 11 hours Williams underwent an intense, aggressive, and intimidating interrogation.
“Being in a small room,” he told PBS, “and you have a person that’s sitting across the table from you that’s getting in your face, yelling at you, calling you a liar, poking you in the chest with their finger, and then turns around and says ‘Well, I can help you, if you tell me the truth.’ ”
The help being that a confession will save the subject from the death penalty.
After eight hours of questioning, Detective Robert Glenn Ford, a man with a reputation for getting confessions, was brought into the interview room. Williams describes Ford as being “like a bulldog; once he gets his teeth into you he doesn’t stop until he gets what he wants from you.”
In the end, Williams was worn down and gave Ford the confession he wanted. Another of the accused, Derek Tice, said that after nine hours of browbeating and execution threats he came to the conclusion his choice was to “Tell [Ford] what he wants to hear and live or keep telling the truth and die.”
New Evidence Exonerates Williams
A few months after the confession and being charged with rape and murder, results from DNA tests came back; the semen left in Michelle Moore-Bosko’s body did not match that of Williams. So, Norfolk police decided to change the story; Williams must have been one of two or more assailants. Police kept the DNA result secret and went looking for an accomplice; they picked Williams’s Navy roommate Joe Dick.
After another intensive round of interrogation by Detective Ford, Dick signed a confession and named others. Eventually, Ford would get confessions from two other Navy men named by Dick.
However, among the four men there was no DNA match, all had passed polygraph tests, and all had recanted their confessions. In addition, crime scene evidence made it clear a gang rape had not occurred. But, none of this stopped the State of Virginia from putting the men on trial.
Trial of the Norfolk Four
Prior to the trials, reports Ian Urbana in The New York Times, “another man, Omar Ballard, confessed that he committed the crimes. His DNA matched evidence from the scene …
“Mr. Ballard had a history of violence against women in the Norfolk neighbourhood where the victim, Michelle Moore-Bosko lived.” He also gave prosecutors information about the crime scene that only the perpetrator could have known.
Ballard was convicted and the prosecution theory changed again to say that the other four had acted with him.
By this time, Williams had entered a guilty plea. Another of the accused, Eric C. Wilson went to trial in June 1999 and his confession trumped all evidence pointing to his innocence. He received an eight-and-a-half-year sentence for rape. The other three men were convicted of the murder in addition to the rape and received life sentences.
Campaign for Release
There were so many holes in the State of Virginia’s case that concerned people began to apply for the men to be released and exonerated.
The Norfolk Four campaign points out that, “An objective, comprehensive review of this case by the nation’s leading experts in the fields of forensic pathology, forensic DNA analysis, crime scene reconstruction, and false confessions leaves no doubt that [the men] were wrongly accused, falsely confessed, and are all innocent.”
Eventually, justicedenied.org reports that in August 2009 out-going Virginia Governor “Tim Kaine granted partial pardons to Norfolk Four defendants, Derek Tice, Danial Williams, and Joseph Dick. The governor’s pardon commuted the men’s sentences of life in prison without parole to time served.” Wilson had already been released having served his sentence.
However, the convictions of the four men remained on the books and they all had to register as sex offenders. The campaign for complete exoneration continued, although the PBS documentary makes it abundantly clear the lives of the four men have been profoundly, negatively, and probably permanently affected by the experience.
Norfolk Four Exonerated
Twenty years after the crime the Norfolk Four finally received justice. In March 2017, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe granted absolute pardons to the four men. Five months earlier federal Judge John Gibney vacated the convictions against Mr. Williams and Mr. Dick. He noted that “no sane human being” would find them guilty. The other two men had been exonerated earlier.
Defence attorneys said more weight attached to the gubernatorial absolute pardons that to any court decision.
Eric Wilson said “I speak for all four of us in expressing our deepest thanks to Governor McAuliffe, who has given us our lives back with these full pardons. We have been haunted by these wrongful convictions for twenty years, which have created profound pain, hardships, and stress for each of us and our families. We now look forward to rebuilding our reputations and our lives.”
Detective Ford Guilty of Extortion
The man most responsible for putting the Norfolk Four behind bars, Detective Robert Glenn Ford, got into serious trouble with the law he swore to uphold.
According to Margaret Edds in The Washington Post, “On October 27 , a federal jury convicted Robert Glenn Ford of two counts of extortion and one of lying to the FBI … he … was shaking down … criminal defendants for thousands of dollars in return for falsely identifying them as informants who had helped solve homicides.” In February 2011, he was given a 12-1/2-year prison term. He has since faced charges in other false confession cases, including beating teenagers and mentally disabled suspects.
The Reid Technique is an aggressive form of police questioning designed to break down a suspect’s defences. The suspect is placed in a small, windowless room, which cuts him off from familiar surroundings and makes him uncomfortable. The interrogator tells the suspect he knows he’s guilty so there had better not be any lies. In the last phase, the interrogator becomes friendly and offers the suspect a way out of the jam he’s in. Various scenarios are offered as to how the crime went down, some bad, some not so bad. Often, the suspect will agree with the explanation that is least dangerous to him such as “It was an accident wasn’t it?” The Reid Technique has come under fire for generating false confessions.
University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross and colleagues have written a report in which they note that, in 2015, 149 people were cleared of crimes they did not commit. This is up from 139 wrongful convictions in 2014.
- “The Confessions.” PBS Frontline, November 9, 2010.
- “Retired F.B.I. Agents Join Cause of 4 Sailors.” Ian Urbana, New York Times, November 10, 2008.
- “The Crumbling Case Against the ‘Norfolk Four.’ ” Margaret Edds, The Washington Post, November 6, 2010.
- “A Rare Look at the Police Tactics That Can Lead to False Confessions.” Gretchen Gavett, PBS, December 9, 2011
- “A Record Number of People Were Exonerated in 2015 for Crimes They Didn’t Commit.” Matt Ferner, Huffington Post, February 3, 2016.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor