About a year ago, I crafted an article on my website, listed under "Most Fascinating Criminal Cases". This piece centered on The Norfolk Four, ....and what appeared to me as one of the worst ever U.S. cases of false confessions. The case also seemed to be one of the worst instances EVER of a reckless disregard for investigative responsibility and adherence to logic.
"The Confessions", aired on PBS November 9, 2010.
This case involved the investigation and conviction of four men -- current and former sailors in the U.S. Navy -- for the 1997 rape/homicide of a young woman in Norfolk, Virginia. Frontline’s coverage of the “Norfolk Four” revealed malicious, high-pressure police interrogation techniques -- the threat of the death penalty, sleep deprivation, and intimidation. The outrageous, irresponsible tactics caused each of the men to confess, despite the glaring lack of any evidence linking any of them to the crime. When the dust settled, eight men had been charged. Five of those men had been coerced into confessions, .....four of them false. Most baffling, .......only ONE DNA profile had been recovered from the case evidence.
Twenty-five-year-old Danial Williams, married for 11 days, was the first to be arrested for the rape/murder of Michelle Bosko. Williams attempted to explain to FRONTLINE how he came to confess after a brutal, humiliating interrogation that spanned ELEVEN HOURS.
When Williams FINALLY confessed, the details were not consistent with the physical evidence. Instead of doubting the validity of the confession, investigators badgered Williams into a ‘revised’ confession that presented a 'better fit' to the crime scene evidence.
Williams' DNA failed to match the DNA observed from Ms. Bosko's sexual assault kit, Of course, this pesky little DNA hiccup did not create any doubt among the investigators. Instead, they simply addressed the glitch by hauling in Williams' roommate, Joe Dick. Yes, the investigators launched yet another interrogation.
Dick's interrogation was conducted by one of Norfolk's most formidable detectives, Robert Glenn Ford, who had a reputation for getting confessions. Utlimately, Ford delivered a second confession, ......from a second suspect. Detective Ford was SO formidable, Joe Dick actually began to believe in his own guilt. Dick proceeded to implicate another sailor, Eric Wilson. Another startling development, .....the police eventually hammered out their THIRD confession.
At some point, one might expect law enforcement officials to view three confessions (with ONE DNA profile) as a sufficient number of defendants. No, the police relentlessly plowed ahead. In the end, four men confessed to the rape and murder of Michelle Bosko. Another three men were arrested before an eighth man, a convicted rapist named Omar Ballard, was found to be the only DNA match with the sexual assault evidence.
Ballard confessed to the rape and murder of Michelle Bosko. Furthermore, Ballard made it clear that he did it alone -- a statement that was consistent with the physical evidence uncovered at the crime scene. However, with a significant percentage of the U.S. Navy already incarcerated for this ONE crime, the police and prosecution refused to change course. Instead, they presented a new theory of the crime.
The investigative team presented their theory that seven guys were pacing around the parking lot. The group of men were contemplating how they might break into an apartment in order to rape and murder a young woman. At that moment, Omar Ballard happened to be strolling by. The aspiring rapists/murderers decided to approach Ballard -- a complete stranger -- and inquire if he had any thoughts on the matter. Before long, all eight men managed to squeeze into the tiny apartment and proceeded with their brutal plan.
Of course, NO witnesses ever came forward, to corroborate the collection of men in the parking lot. Nobody ever reported the wild group, .....forcing their way into the apartment. And lastly, not a soul remembered hearing a disturbance consistent with such a series of events involving so many people. From an initial theory of a single assailant, namely Danial Williams, the prosecution theory had now evolved into a profoundly improbable tale. Such a scenario might as well have been cooked up by a babbling mental patient.
All four sailors are now out of prison -- one served his sentence, and the other three were granted conditional pardons, after some 11 years in prison. But the men were not exonerated as felons or sex offenders.
Michael J. Spence, Ph.D.
February 29, 2012
February 29, 2012