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$8.4 Million Combined Settlement Reached by ‘Norfolk Four’

by Douglas Ankney

Four former Navy sailors (the “Norfolk Four”), who were wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of Michelle Bosko, agreed to a $4.9 million settlement with the City of Norfolk, Virginia. 

Governor Ralph Northam then signed legislation directing that the men receive an additional $3.5 million from the Commonwealth of Virginia.

In July 1997, Bosko was raped and murdered in her apartment in Norfolk, Virginia. Crime-scene officers recorded the scene that strongly suggested Bosko was attacked by one person acting alone. One of Bosko’s neighbors informed police of Omar Ballard, who had a lengthy criminal history and who was arrested for an assault on a different woman in the same apartment complex. Additionally, a third woman from the same complex had been raped, and her description of the assailant fit Ballard.

In spite of these facts, the police focused on Danial Williams, a neighbor of Bosko. No evidence linked Williams to the crime, and his ailing wife told police he was with her at the time of the crime. Williams repeatedly protested his innocence during an interrogation that lasted more than nine hours. Police falsely told Williams he had failed a polygraph test, and they told him they knew he killed Bosko by beating her with a shoe.

Then detective Robert Ford interrogated Williams. Ford had previously been demoted because he had coerced false confessions from three teenagers in a robbery/murder from October 1990. Nevertheless, Ford used the same illegal tactics to elicit a false confession from Williams. And when the forensic evidence revealed Bosko was killed with a knife, Ford forced Williams to change his confession to fit the facts.

However, in December 1997, forensics determined that Williams was not the contributor of the DNA from the crime scene. Even though evidence indicated that only one man committed the crime, Ford did not investigate Ballard but instead interrogated Joseph Dick — the roommate of Williams. Dick repeatedly denied any involvement, but Ford used the same illegal, coercive methods to induce Dick to state he and Williams jointly assaulted and stabbed Bosko.

Then in March 1998, forensics eliminated Dick as a possible contributor of the DNA. Undeterred, Ford, again ignoring Ballard, turned to Eric Wilson, who was an acquaintance of Williams. Using the same interrogation techniques, Ford forced Wilson to give a false confession. But shortly thereafter, forensics eliminated him as well.

Ford then pressured Dick into naming a fourth suspect. Dick first made up a fictional person, but Ford increased the pressure until Dick chose Derek Tice from a Navy yearbook. Ford then coerced a false confession from Tice. And Tice was later eliminated as a contributor of the DNA. 

By the fall of 1998, Ford had arrested three additional former sailors, charging them with participating in the rape and murder of Bosko.

In February 1999, while Ballard was in prison for a rape conviction, he confessed in a letter to a friend that he alone had also raped and killed Bosko. Forensic testing confirmed that the DNA came from Ballard. And, in his initial statement to police, Ballard said he acted alone.

But Ford told Ballard that if Ballard wanted a plea deal to escape the death penalty, then Ballard had to implicate Williams, Dick, Wilson, and Tice in the crime. Ballard gave the false statement demanded by Ford.

Because of Ballard’s statement and because they feared a death sentence, Williams and Dick pleaded guilty. Each was sentenced to life without parole. Wilson went to trial. He was acquitted of murder, but the jury found him guilty of rape based solely on his false confession. He was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years. Tice was convicted of rape and murder, not once, but twice. His first conviction was overturned because of faulty jury instructions. Based solely on his false confession, he was convicted a second time. He received life sentences.

The fact of their innocence slowly surfaced in postconviction pleadings. In 2009, after more than a decade of incarceration, former Governor Tim Kaine granted conditional pardons to Williams, Dick, and Tice (Wilson had already served his sentence and been released). Each of the pardoned men had to live on strict parole, and all four were subjected to the onerous restrictions of being registered sex offenders. 

Finally, in September 2016, Justice John A. Gibney of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia wrote in his Opinion and Order, “By any measure, the evidence shows the defendants’ innocence—by a preponderance of the evidence, by clear and convincing evidence, by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, or even by conclusive evidence.” 

Then in March 2017, former Governor Terry McAuliffe granted each of the men an absolute pardon, removing all parole and sex offender restrictions, as well as fully reinstating their civil rights. 

According to the settlement, the police withheld exculpatory physical and scientific evidence in addition to concealing Ballard’s initial statement of acting alone. Prosecutors also failed to inform defense attorneys that many of the reports that were disclosed during discovery had been redacted. Had this evidence been disclosed, Williams and Dick would not have pleaded guilty. Wilson and Tice would have been acquitted. Instead, each man ended up in prison where each was physically assaulted.

In unrelated cases, Ford was sentenced to 150 months in federal prison. He took bribes from criminal defendants in exchange for his false statements to judges and prosecutors wherein he said the defendants had provided valuable assistance in solving homicides. 

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Sources: Norfolk Four and City of Norfolk, Virginia, settlement agreement, Oct. 30, 2018, Senate Bill 772 Virginia 2018, legiscan.com, Bristol Herald Courier

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