More than a decade after a Virginia woman was found raped and stabbed to death in her home, four of five men convicted of the crime are still fighting to clear their names. The case has many of the hallmarks of a wrongful conviction, including questionable confessions that don’t match the details of the crime scene and expanding numbers of suspects in a case where evidence initially pointed to a lone perpetrator. An article in this week’s New York Times Magazine says “even in the upside-down world of wrongful convictions, the extravagant case of (the Norfolk Four) is in a class of its own.” Supporters are calling for clemency from the Virginia Governor, while others say a confession means a closed case. From the New York Times Magazine article:
The Norfolk Four count a growing list of supporters, including four former Virginia attorneys general, one of them a Republican, who have no obvious motive for suggesting that the state perpetrated a major miscarriage of justice. Richard Cullen, who was appointed a U.S. attorney under President George H. W. Bush and attorney general by former Gov. George Allen, said the “totality of the scientific evidence” and “the crime scene being inconsistent with the prosecution theory” convinced him that the four are innocent.
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in which DNA testing has proven that an innocent person falsely confessed.
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A horrible crime and a “confession specialist”
Danial Williams, Joseph Dick, Derek Tice and Eric Wilson had met one another in the Navy while stationed in Norfolk. When Michelle Moore-Bosko was found dead in her house, police turned to Williams, who lived with Dick in an apartment near the victim’s, because someone said Williams “had a crush” on Bosko. Police questioned him for eight hours before calling in Robert Glenn Ford, a detective known for his ability to extract confessions from reluctant suspects. Within an hour, Williams had begun his confession.
Despite the fact that Williams’ confession was inconsistent with the crime scene, prosecutors seemed satisfied that the case was closed and the investigation stopped for five months, while DNA testing was ongoing. When the test results came back, blood and semen from the crime scene came from one unidentified man – the profile didn’t match either the victim’s husband or Danial Williams.
Within six months, three of Williams’s acquaintances – Dick, Tice and Wilson – had all confessed to roles in the crime. Dick was the second to confess, also giving facts inconsistent with both Williams’s confession and the crime scene. The DNA results, however, matched none of these four. Three more men were arrested – and released – during this investigation. Eventually, evidence surfaced that another man, Omar Ballard, had written a letter admitting that he killed the victim. He told police he committed the crime alone and DNA evidence confirmed this – the profile left at the crime scene by the perpetrator matched Ballard.
Why do people falsely confess?
Advocates for the Norfolk Four are asking Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine to grant clemency to the men, as their legal appeals have been exhausted. Those who ask the governor to let the convictions stand say that the confessions are credible and that the governor should not overturn a jury’s verdict. However, the history of DNA exonerations shows that confessions are often false – almost 25 percent of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing involve a false confession or admission. False confessions are often caused by threats of the death penalty – which are alleged in the Norfolk case – and threats of physical harm. The Times Magazine article considers the case of Christopher Ochoa:
In connection with the state’s review of the Norfolk Four case, the Virginia parole board recently heard from Christopher Ochoa, who confessed to a rape and murder in Austin in 1988 and implicated his roommate, Richard Danziger. Ochoa, then 22 and with no criminal record, said the police threatened him with physical violence and the death penalty if he didn’t confess, claims also made by the Norfolk Four. Ochoa’s case became a cause célèbre after it was revealed that the office of Gov. George W. Bush received a letter from the actual murderer confessing to the crime but failed to contact the police. Ochoa’s DNA was tested again, and his innocence was established. He was released in 2001 after 12 years in prison; he now practices law in Wisconsin. Danziger, who suffered brain damage from a beating while in prison, was also freed.
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Police Experiences with Recording Custodial Interrogations
(Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern University)