Until Proven Innocent 

In refusing to give the Norfolk Four full pardons, Gov. Tim Kaine continues a Virginia tradition of believing false confessions. 

click to enlarge news32_norfolk4_200.jpg

Correction: Because of an editing mistake, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the parents of the victim in the Norfolk Four case, Michelle Moore-Bosko, petitioned for the release of three of the men, and were “devastated” by Kaine's refusal to grant the men full pardons. The lawyers for the three men petitioned their release, not the victim's family. And the statement from the victim's family was in reference to their disappointment that the men were released. Style regrets the errors.

Earlier this year, as Gov. Tim Kaine was wrestling with what is arguably the most bizarre case in Virginia criminal history, Nebraska was wallowing in its own Little House of (Judicial) Horrors.

On Jan. 26, the Nebraska Board of Pardons voted 3-0 to override the convictions of two men and three women convicted of the 1985 slaying of a 68-year-old woman in the southeastern Nebraska community of Beatrice.

Astonishingly, all five had earlier acknowledged guilt. Several gave detailed confessions about how and why they brutally assaulted Helen Wilson — which runs counter to Kaine's assertion earlier this week that “no one else has been asked to disregard so many confessions” in a single case. 

What may be more correct is that no state has been so reluctant as Virginia to throw out multiple confessions demonstrated by DNA evidence to be false.

Kaine late last week conditionally pardoned three of the four men known internationally as The Norfolk Four. The three were serving life terms for the 1997 death of Michelle Moore-Bosko, a vivacious young Navy wife slain in Norfolk while her husband was at sea. A fourth man, whose status is unaffected by Kaine's decision, was convicted only of rape and has completed his prison term.

Kaine declined to issue absolute pardons, which would have freed the men to live normal lives outside the parole system and to shed the withering stigma of convictions as sexual offenders. 

In announcing his decision, Kaine acknowledges the total lack of physical evidence linking any of the four — plus three others arrested but never tried — to the crime; the extensive errors and inconsistencies in the confessions of the convicted men; the fact that each confessed only after a lengthy interrogation and being falsely told that he had failed a lie detector test; and the discovery that DNA linked only one person to the crime, a rapist who claims to have acted alone and whose story is the only one fitting the details of the murder.

Kaine says he could not conclude beyond a shadow of doubt that three of the men were innocent. The petitioners, their attorneys, and a host of supporters including four former Virginia attorneys general and more than two dozen retired FBI agents, raised “grave doubts,” about their involvement, he says, but the evidence does not constitute “conclusive proof of innocence.”

Elsewhere, however, multiple confessions have not deterred officials from concluding that DNA or other evidence trumps a bewildering mishmash of claims and counterclaims. The best-known case is probably that of a 28-year-old investment banker raped and brutally beaten as she jogged through Central Park in April 1989. Of five teenagers convicted of the crime, four confessed on videotape, some with their parents in the room.

Four years later, however, an unrelated serial rapist and murderer confessed to the crime. DNA and other evidence matched, and the convicted young men were released.

Another stunner, dubbed the Buddhist Temple Massacre, in which nine people were murdered outside Phoenix in 1991, produced five confessions — none of which came from the actual culprits.

And then last year, cases against the six people who went to prison in 1990 in the Beatrice, Neb., murder began to unravel when DNA linked another man, now deceased, to the crime. The only one of the six who had consistently insisted on his innocence was exonerated when prosecutors declined to seek a new trial.

Somewhat lost in the frenzy surrounding Kaine's announcement was a promise that should not go unheeded. The case of the Norfolk Four “will not end until the Commonwealth of Virginia officially recognizes that our clients are innocent,” pledges Don Salzman, Danial Williams' attorney, and a spokesman for the group.

How can that be? Isn't gubernatorial review the final word in such cases? No.

Ask Northern Virginia attorney Robert Hall, a former president of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association and a lead attorney in the case of Earl Washington Jr.

Washington, who spent nine-and-a-half years on Virginia's death row for a murder he did not commit, received an absolute pardon from former Gov. Jim Gilmore in October 2000. But when various public officials continued to insist on Washington's guilt, Hall and others filed a civil suit that eventually produced a host of documents and tests exonerating Washington and exposing error and deception in various state agencies.

Almost seven years after Gilmore's pardon, the state finally proclaimed him innocent.

After reviewing last week's pardons, Hall (who coincidentally represents Virginia Tech families in the lawsuit that recently unearthed missing records from killer Seung-Hui Cho) says he sees several avenues under which attorneys could conceivably go forward on behalf of the Norfolk Four.

“They would appear to have the right to challenge their convictions by habeas and could file civil lawsuits for the use of fabricated confessions,” he says.

Says George Kendall, attorney for Joe Dick: “These guys are innocent, and [as convicted sex offenders] they're going to have one hell of a hill to climb.”

Given such assessments, the conclusion that the Norfolk Four case is far from over seems less a threat than a promise.  S


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