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Former U.S. attorney on Norfolk Four rape, murder case: 'It's the worst miscarriage of justice I've experienced in my 40 years as a lawyer'
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Former U.S. attorney on Norfolk Four rape, murder case: 'It's the worst miscarriage of justice I've experienced in my 40 years as a lawyer'

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Hours after the body of Michelle Moore Bosko was discovered in Norfolk on July 8, 1997, police had an arrest warrant in hand for the man who raped and murdered her.

Canvassing the area for information that day, detectives looked into two other recently reported crimes at the Ocean View apartments — the rape of another young Navy wife on June 21, and the report of a woman struck and knocked down by an assailant on June 24.

As a result, Omar Abdul Ballard was charged with the June mugging — but not the Bosko murder or the June rape, although the description of that rapist also fit Ballard’s appearance. Ballard was arrested on July 26 after beating and raping a 14-year-old girl.

Police investigating the Bosko murder had ample reason to suspect Ballard, but by early July 9, they instead had focused on a 25-year-old sailor, Danial Williams, who lived across the hall from Bosko but had passed a polygraph test on his claim of innocence and had already given a confession police knew was false.

Williams’ story was tidied up later that day after it was learned Bosko was stabbed, not hit in the head with a shoe as Williams first said. The confession would ultimately lead to the wrongful convictions of Williams and three other young men who came to be known as the Norfolk Four.

It has long been known that the Bosko murder investigation involved a rogue detective with a history of coercing false confessions. But now, more attention is being drawn to the case, and more details about the investigation are surfacing as Norfolk is being asked to compensate the four and as wrongful imprisonment compensation bills — predicated on Norfolk paying damages — are pending in the Virginia General Assembly.

The Norfolk Four case is one of the strangest in Virginia history — four young sailors with no criminal records falsely confessed to the rape and murder of the 18-year-old wife of another sailor.

For Richard Cullen, former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia and a former Virginia attorney general, “It’s the worst miscarriage of justice I’ve experienced in my 40 years as a lawyer.”

Cullen, then chairman of the McGuireWoods law firm, was first asked to look into the case by lawyers for the four men about 10 years ago when pardon petitions were being prepared for the governor. Cullen was shocked by what he learned.

“In our system, especially cases involving eyewitness identification, there’s going to be human error. Thankfully, DNA has helped correct honest mistakes,” he said. “But this was not an honest mistake. This was intentional.”

“Think about that, a powerful policeman purposefully put men in prison that he knew were innocent. It’s stunning,” Cullen said. “Just thank goodness for (U.S. District) Judge (John A.) Gibney, who just wasn’t going to rest until all the facts were exposed.”

Despite five trials, numerous appeals and pardon bids backed by former FBI agents, among others, Norfolk officials did not turn over some seminal police records until 2015 when Gibney ordered them to do so.

By then, it was widely known their convictions were in large part the work of Robert Glenn Ford, a Norfolk detective tossed off the homicide squad for coercing false robbery confessions from three teenagers in 1990.

But in 1997, Ford was back on the squad, working on the Bosko case and at the same time secretly working a lucrative extortion racket, a scam that could end if he was caught coercing more false confessions. He is now in federal prison on corruption convictions.

There were other problems with the Bosko case, not all of them known in 2009 when then-Gov. Tim Kaine, who inherited the clemency petitions from former Gov. Mark Warner, granted the Norfolk Four conditional pardons instead of the unconditional pardons sought in their clemency petitions. Kaine’s action granted freedom to three of the four men still in prison, but it left all four on sex offender registries and under a cloud of guilt.

Compensation bills, recently unanimously passed in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate, assert that Norfolk “vigorously opposed these (clemency) petitions and continued to withhold evidence from the governor of Virginia that would have confirmed their innocence.”

It was not until last year, after Gibney’s ruling, that then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe granted the Norfolk Four unconditional pardons.

***

For 18 years prior to Gibney’s ruling, Norfolk and the Virginia attorney general’s office defended the convictions. Four men had confessed to the brutal crime, even if they all later retracted the confessions.

Norfolk police and the city attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment. The Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office referred questions to the Chesapeake Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, long ago designated the special prosecutor for the cases. The Virginia Attorney General’s Office referred questions to Norfolk and lawyers for the four men.

Defending the convictions years ago, a prosecutor said among other things that it was known all along that only Ballard’s DNA was present and that the juries heard the various conflicts in the confessions but still convicted the men.

The problem with the confessions is that they require an unlikely, Rube Goldberg theory of the crime succinctly critiqued by Gibney in his 2016 ruling:

“The commonwealth’s theory depends on assumptions that beggar belief: that four men struggled with Bosko without leaving any DNA behind, that four men raped Bosko without leaving any DNA behind, that four men stabbed her without leaving any DNA behind, that four men passed a knife around, taking turns stabbing her, and creating a neat pattern of fatal wounds, all of the same depth.”

The judge noted that Ballard was the only person linked to the crime by DNA; his 1999 confession accurately fit the facts, unlike the confessions of the Norfolk Four that were inconsistent with one another and with the facts; and that Ballard said he was the only one involved.

“Omar Ballard alone killed Michelle Bosko,” concluded Gibney, who vacated the convictions of Williams and Joseph Dick. Following Gibney’s ruling, Norfolk authorities declined to pursue prosecuting them.

Derek Tice’s conviction was overturned by a federal judge in 2009 on constitutional grounds. Eric Wilson, who had been released from prison, was unable to pursue court appeals for procedural reasons.

While Ballard was convicted of Bosko’s rape and murder, Norfolk authorities maintained the Norfolk Four were also guilty, contending that Ballard did not want to be known as a snitch by implicating others, and that the four did not implicate Ballard because they feared him.

Facing death sentences at a time when Virginia was second in the nation in carrying out executions, Williams and Dick pleaded guilty. Tice and Wilson went to trial and were convicted — Tice of rape and murder and Wilson of rape, on the basis of their confessions.

Records that surfaced in 2015 include canvassing notes that show detectives investigating the Bosko rape and murder at Ocean View found evidence linking Ballard to an assault against a woman there for which they obtained an arrest warrant. They also looked into a nearby rape committed by a man fitting Ballard’s description — two crimes that occurred weeks earlier at the same apartments.

And statements from two former Norfolk detectives to the Virginia State Police in 2011 suggest Williams’ bogus confession of July 9, 1997 — from which the other three cases flowed — was allowed to be used against him at least in part on the basis of wrong information.

***

In July 1997, Williams and his wife, who was suffering from cancer, lived in an apartment across the hall from the Boskos. Also living with them was another young sailor, Joseph Dick. Williams and his wife said they were at home asleep the night of the slaying, July 7-8.

Bosko’s husband, Billy, also in the U.S. Navy, was on a ship the night his wife was slain. He returned to the apartment on July 8 around 3:30 p.m., discovered his wife’s body and frantically went to Williams’ apartment across the hall. Williams called 911 to report the death.

In a 2011 statement to the Virginia State Police, Maureen Evans, a Norfolk detective — who initially led the Bosko investigation but soon took another job elsewhere — said she had asked Tamika Taylor, a friend of Bosko’s, who might have killed her. Evans said Taylor told her it could have been Williams. Evans said Taylor told her that Williams was obsessed with Bosko.

Evans and Scott Halverson, another detective, interviewed Williams at the Norfolk police operations center starting around 8 p.m.

Other detectives interviewed Taylor. “At the time, Taylor told these detectives that the victim also knew a man named Omar ... but they did not tell me that Omar had been involved in another altercation with a woman at that apartment complex,” Evans said.

“As far as I knew, Omar was just an acquaintance of the victim. Had I remained with the Norfolk Police Department, I would have interviewed Omar later, in the normal course of things, but there was no reason to focus on him,” Evans told the state police.

Police interrogation notes of Williams’ July 8-9 interview say that at 6:06 a.m. July 9, after a break, Williams told Ford and Halverson he had forced sex with Bosko, that he struck her in the head with his fist and hit her once in the head with a shoe.

Halverson testified at a Nov. 17, 1997, hearing to determine the admissibility of Williams’ critical confession that he was present when Williams confessed to Ford. The problem is, that may not be correct.

Evans and Halverson both told the Virginia State Police in 2011 that Ford was alone in the room with Williams when he confessed.

Halverson said, “I do not know what Ford said or did to get Williams to confess because I was not in there. All I know is that Ford was only in there a short while before he came out and said that Williams had confessed. Ford never told me what he said or did to get this confession.”

He acknowledged the inconsistency in a June 2011 interview by the state police. In testimony before Gibney in 2015, Halverson, then a police sergeant with the city of Franklin, said that when he made the 2011 statements, he did not have his notes with him.

Evans told state police that she believed the only reason Williams passed the polygraph during his interrogation was that he was a sociopath. “So I told him that he failed,” she said.

“I then started offering him the theme that maybe he and the victim were developing a mutual affection but something went wrong. I could see that he was interested in the idea,” she said, according to the transcript of the 2011 state police interview.

Evans said, “I suggested to him that maybe they were having sex and she tried to stop because she became afraid of her husband finding out.

“I suggested that when she tried to stop, he became angry and hit her with something, maybe his fist, maybe a shoe. Williams then blurted out, ‘I don’t know, I might have sleepwalked,’” Evans told the state police.

She said she became convinced Williams would not confess to her, so Ford volunteered to help. Ford spoke with Williams twice. After the second time, Evans said Ford told them Williams confessed to raping her and hitting her in the head with a shoe.

“I told him that Williams was just giving back the hypothetical scenario that I had given him. Ford said that it was still good because Williams admitted being there,” Evans said.

After the confession, Evans went to the autopsy and learned Bosko was stabbed three times. She returned and interviewed Williams by herself, telling him that Bosko had been stabbed and asking him if he stabbed her. He said he stabbed Bosko three times, she said.

Soon after that, she left the Norfolk department, and Halverson transferred to a different detective squad. “I think a lot of the normal investigative steps that should have been taken after Williams’ confession were not followed up on because we left,” she said.

She said she was shocked to later learn that the DNA did not match Williams and that he had already accepted a life sentence. Nevertheless, she continued to work on the case, helping to interview Dick, the Williamses’ roommate.

***

Bills introduced in the Virginia House and Senate, totaling $3.5 million and $1.8 million respectively, for the Norfolk Four have yet to be ironed out in conference committee.

However, both bills award state money only if the city of Norfolk agrees to pay an amount at least as equal in size; otherwise, the city remains liable to a federal civil rights suit.

In 2006, former Virginia death row inmate Earl Washington Jr., wrongly convicted of a rape and murder in Culpeper, won a $2.25 million judgment in a federal civil rights suit alleging that investigators fed him details about the crime during his “confession.”

Lawyers for the Norfolk Four said there had been earlier discussions with Norfolk about compensation, but there are none at present. The Norfolk city attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Other wrongful conviction cases in recent years include a $41 million verdict in New York; a $20 million settlement in Illinois; an $18 million settlement in Washington, D.C.; a $16 million verdict in Missouri; and a $13.2 million verdict in Ohio.

Ballard, 41, now known as Quran Al-Ameen Styles, is an inmate at the Sussex II State Prison, where he is serving two life terms plus 42 years for capital murder, two rapes, two counts of malicious wounding and abduction.

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