The crumbling case against the 'Norfolk Four'
Like limestone eroding under an acid drip, Virginia’s porous claims against the former prisoners known as the Norfolk Four continue to dissolve.
Fifteen months after then-Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine conditionally pardoned three of the four but exonerated no one, a surprising twist creates an opportunity for full justice in one of the most bizarre cases in the annals of U.S. criminal justice.
On Oct. 27 in Norfolk, the retired homicide detective who elicited confessions from Danial Williams, Joseph Dick, Derek Tice and Eric Wilson in the brutal, 1997 rape-murder of an 18-year-old Navy bride was himself unmasked as morally bankrupt. A federal jury convicted Robert Glenn Ford of two counts of extortion and one of lying to the FBI. In other words, even as Ford was asserting under oath in 2006 that “every one of them” in the Norfolk Four case was guilty, he also was shaking down other criminal defendants for thousands of dollars in return for falsely identifying them as informants who had helped solve homicides.
Ford’s crimes are not connected to his work to convict the Norfolk Four. But might Kaine have approved a full pardon had he known, in his razor-thin parsing of the case, that its central architect — a man who traveled to Richmond to lobby the governor’s legal staff against clemency — was capable of such hubris and deceit? Four men who have traded prison for the leprous life of registered sex offenders deserve to know.
For those who have never encountered a false confession, never studied the way prisoners verbally battered and threatened with execution can turn on themselves, never read the graphic details such detainees sometimes concoct to satisfy their interrogators, the innocence of the Norfolk Four is difficult to comprehend.
They did, after all, confess — not once, not twice, but multiple times.
Astounding as that may be, it is not unique. Remember the notorious 1989 Central Park jogger case? Five teenagers, some with their parents in the room, falsely confessed to the rape and beating of an investment banker. And after a massacre at a Buddhist temple in Phoenix in 1991, police extracted four confessions before discovering that none of the men was involved.
A “PBS Frontline” documentary on the Norfolk Four case, scheduled to air Tuesday, makes it chillingly clear that the concept of multiple false confessions is no more preposterous than Ford’s and the prosecutors’ ever-shifting theory of the case.
Initially satisfied with one confession, police backtracked after the first DNA test failed to match evidence. Over time, faced with one disappointing DNA result after another, Ford extracted more and more confessions and more and more names of purported co-conspirators. Eventually, seven men, including two with solid alibis, stood implicated.
No evidence existed against any of them, save the confessions.
Then, out of the blue, an eighth man serving time for rape, also confessed. Omar Ballard, who did not know the others, was the only suspect without ties to the armed services, the only one with a history of attacking women, the only one who knew precisely how the crime occurred, and the only one whose DNA fit.
As he tells “Frontline”: “I alone committed the murders. . . . No one ever had anything to say or do with the case besides me.”
By the time Ballard appeared, police and prosecutors were too invested to admit their mistake. They simply inserted Ballard into a ludicrous, eight-man conspiracy. Aside from Ballard, now serving a life sentence, the three men conditionally pardoned by Kaine each served about 11 years of life sentences; the fourth man, Wilson, was convicted of rape only and had completed an 8½-year sentence at the time of the partial pardons.
As registered sex offenders, all four live in a hellish limbo, dictated by the laws of their individual states. In Michigan, Williams wears an electronic ankle bracelet 24 hours a day. He cannot even work in the yard without permission. In Texas, Wilson was denied admission to a school for electricians and cannot adopt his wife’s son because of his criminal record. In North Carolina, Tice washes windows for a living, his dream of becoming a nurse forever barred. And in Maryland, Dick fears taking his parents’ dogs for a walk because a school backs up to their property.
Can this fiasco be righted?
Not easily, and perhaps not at all, although a team of pro bono lawyers is trying diligently.
Their path would be eased if one of a handful of politicians showed courage. Kaine could review his own decision and urge his successor to consider an amended, full pardon. Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Gregory Underwood could take the bold step of acknowledging his office’s error. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell could undertake his own review.
Ford’s discrediting ought to spur the long-overdue collapse of resistance to true justice for the Norfolk Four.
Margaret Edds is a Virginia journalist and the author of “An Expendable Man: The Near-Execution of Earl Washington Jr.”
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