The PBS documentary, which premiered this season with an examination of the Todd Willingham case, takes up another controversial case, that of the Norfolk Four in Virginia.
Tomorrow night's program is, "The Confessions." Check your local PBS affiliate for the time in your locale.
Why would four innocent men confess to a brutal crime they didn’t commit? FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel (Innocence Lost, An Ordinary Crime) investigates the conviction of four Navy sailors for the rape and murder of a Norfolk, Va., woman in 1997. In interviews with the sailors, Bikel learns of some of the high-pressure police interrogation techniques -- including the threat of the death penalty, sleep deprivation, and intimidation -- that led each of the “Norfolk Four” to confess, despite a lack of evidence linking them to the crime. All four sailors are now out of prison -- one served his sentence and the other three were granted conditional pardons last summer -- but the men were not exonerated as felons or sex offenders. The case raises disturbing questions about the actions of the police and prosecutors, who relied on the sailors’ often contradictory confessions for their convictions, and disregarded DNA evidence that pointed to a lone assailant who would later confess to the crime himself while serving prison time for another rape.
On Saturday, the New York Times reported, "Officer’s Extortion Conviction Prompts Calls for Full Exoneration of ‘Norfolk Four’," by Sabrina Tavernise.
The recent conviction of a Virginia police officer supports the case for full exoneration of the “Norfolk Four,” former sailors convicted of rape and murder, who received conditional pardons from Virginia’s governor last year, lawyers for the men said.
In legal briefs filed in Virginia this week, the lawyers argued that last week’s conviction of Robert Glenn Ford, a police officer in Norfolk, Va., and the main investigator in the case of the Norfolk Four, raises new evidence showing the men were wrongly convicted. The men received partial pardons in 2009, but their convictions still stand, and the lawyers argue that they should now be overturned.
The men were convicted in the 1997 murder case of Michelle Moore-Bosko in Norfolk. None of the four sailors had prior criminal records, and the case against them was based almost entirely on confessions they gave to Mr. Ford, who pursued the investigation despite DNA evidence linking the crime to another man, Omar Ballard.
But Mr. Ford’s conviction — for extortion and lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation — covered a period that began in 2003, long after the Norfolk Four were convicted, and in a letter last month, Judge Everett A. Martin Jr., expressed skepticism that the conviction was relevant for the Norfolk Four case.
But Donald P. Salzman, a lawyer for Danial J. Williams, one of the former sailors, argued in a response filed this week that Mr. Ford’s indictment and conviction was new information that substantially changed the facts of his client’s case.
Specifically, Mr. Salzman said, a source has come forward asserting that Mr. Ford had stated he believed the men were not guilty of the crime. But in Mr. Salzman’s view, Mr. Ford did not back off the case because he was trying to protect his position. Earlier in his career, Mr. Salzman said, Mr. Ford was caught in what prosecutors said was an effort to elicit false confessions from juveniles, and Mr. Salzman argued that another instance could have endangered his job.
“A detective who was the driving force behind these convictions has now been convicted for manipulating the justice system,” said Mr. Salzman, of the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. “He had a motive to continue to pursue these cases.”
Margaret Edds posts, "The crumbling case against the 'Norfolk Four'," the Voices blog of the Washington Post.
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.
The Virginian-Pilot reports, "'Frontline' show dissects case of the Norfolk Four," by Tim McGlone.
Frontline producers also obtained, for the first time publicly, an interview with Ballard. He told Frontline that police pressured him to say the other men participated in the crime with him, a statement that he said was not true.
"It was made clear from the jump that unless I said somebody else was with me, that it wasn't going to be the truth," Ballard said. "The only truth they wanted to hear (was) that I did it with someone else."
The recent corruption conviction in federal court here of retired Norfolk Detective Robert Glenn Ford is also part of the show.
The Norfolk Four lawyers said the guilty verdict in the Ford case is directly relevant to the innocence claims the men have pending.
Federal authorities here have said they do not believe there is a link between Ford's corruption case and his history of obtaining a number of false confessions.
The Norfolk Four case has already been written about in a book called "The Wrong Guys." Popular author John Grisham is also working on a screenplay about the case.