The Crime and Investigation
Michelle Bosko was raped and murdered in her apartment in Norfolk, Virginia, on July 7, 1997. Her husband, a sailor returning from duty at sea, found her body the next day. The police investigation focused immediately on Danial Williams, a neighbor with no criminal record who lived in the same apartment complex with his wife and another sailor, Joseph Dick. Williams, who the police heard had an unhealthy fixation on Michelle Bosko, was interrogated at length and initially protested his innocence. But, after being told that he had flunked a lie detector test, he confessed to Detective Robert Glenn Ford that he had committed the crime.
Despite the fact that many of the details of Williams’s confession were at odds with the crime scene (e.g., Bosko was stabbed, but Williams initially stated that he had killed her by striking her with a shoe), Williams was arrested and charged with the crime. At that time, the police believed that Williams was the sole perpetrator; they did not see anything at the crime scene that made them believe that more than one person had been involved.
Five months after the confession, the Virginia forensic laboratory revealed that sperm, blood and other genetic material from the crime scene did not match Williams’s DNA. Norfolk investigators then interrogated Joseph Dick, who initially protested his innocence. But, after being told that he had flunked a lie detector test, he too confessed to Investigator Ford that he had committed the crime with Williams. Dick had no criminal record and many of the details of his confession varied from the crime scene and from the details of Williams’s earlier statements. Dick was arrested and charged with the crime. But the state laboratory concluded that Dick’s DNA also did not match the crime scene evidence.
The police then placed an informant in Dick’s jail cell, and the informant obtained information about another sailor, Eric Wilson. Wilson too had no criminal record. He was interrogated and he protested his innocence, but, after being told that he had flunked a lie detector test, Wilson confessed to Detective Ford that he had acted with Williams and Dick. Many of the details of Wilson’s confession again did not match up with either the crime scene or the confessions given by William and Dick. Once again, the state forensics laboratory determined that Wilson's DNA did not match the crime scene evidence. The police then reinterviewed Joseph Dick, and Dick provided descriptions of former sailors whom he claimed were involved in the crime, in addition to himself, Williams and Wilson.
One of the descriptions led police to Derek Tice, a former sailor who had left the Navy and moved to Florida. Like Williams, Dick, and Wilson, Tice had no criminal record. In June 1998, Tice was brought back to Virginia and interrogated. He protested his innocence, was told that he had flunked a lie detector test and eventually confessed to Ford that he had committed the crime. In his confession, he named the three suspects who had already been arrested and also stated that Geoffrey Farris and Richard Pauley had been involved. Farris and Pauley were both arrested and jailed for many months, but they maintained their innocence and were eventually released.
Tice’s confession, like those of the others before him, was at odds with many of the details about the crime scene and was in conflict with the confessions of the other suspects. As with the earlier suspects, the state forensics lab confirmed, in August 1998, more than one year after the crime, that the crime-scene DNA did not match Tice, or Farris or Pauley.
The police reinterviewed Tice and Dick several more times, and the two eventually named four more men, including John Danser. Tice also stated that a black man was involved; describing him as muscular, 5’9” to 5’10” in height; he explained that he had never mentioned this man before because they were all scared of him. Joe Dick also told the police and his defense attorney that a black man was involved in the attack. John Danser was arrested, but he had a conclusive alibi and his DNA did not match the crime scene evidence.
The investigation then stalled with seven people in jail for the crime. Four of the men had confessed, but the physical evidence did not match the DNA of any of the jailed suspects.
Omar Ballard’s Confession
In February 1999, nineteen months after the crime, a woman walked into the Norfolk Police Department with a letter written to her daughter by a prisoner named Omar Ballard. At the time of the letter, Ballard was in prison for two crimes. About two weeks before Bosko’s murder, Ballard and another man had attacked a young woman with a baseball bat at the same apartment complex where Bosko was killed. Ballard had sought refuge in Bosko’s apartment right after that attack, to hide from an angry mob of residents who tried to apprehend him. Within a few weeks after the Bosko murder, Ballard also raped and strangled a 14-year-old girl at knifepoint about one mile from Bosko's apartment.
In the letter he wrote from prison, sent to threaten a former girlfriend, Ballard bragged that he had killed Michelle Bosko. The Norfolk police visited Ballard in prison in March 1999, but he declined their request to discuss the crime. He did allow physical evidence to be taken to compare with the crime scene evidence, and that analysis revealed that his DNA matched the DNA of the blood and semen found at the crime scene.
Ford then interviewed Ballard, who quickly confessed. Ballard, however, said that he acted alone. His description of the crime scene was consistent with the known details of the crime, even though it had happened nearly two years earlier. In March of 2000, Ballard pled guilty to the crime and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Ballard avoided the death penalty by making a deal with the prosecution: he agreed to say that he committed the crime with the four sailors police had already charged. As part of a plea agreement, he was interrogated again and, for the first time, claimed that he had met Williams, Dick, Wilson and Tice in the apartment parking lot and had committed the crime with them.
Guilty Pleas, Trials and Convictions
Williams, Dick, Wilson, and Tice were each convicted in separate proceedings. Danial Williams pled guilty to rape and murder on January 22, 1999, despite the knowledge that lab results had shown that his DNA did not match any evidence from the crime scene. He signed a stipulation indicating that he had committed the crime with Dick, Wilson, Tice, Pauley, Farris and Danser. After he became aware of Ballard’s confession, he sought to withdraw his guilty plea. In April 1999, the court refused his motion to withdraw the plea and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Joseph Dick pled guilty on April 21, 1999. Dick knew when he pled guilty that Ballard had confessed to committing the crime by himself. At a hearing in June, Dick was asked by the prosecutor why he had confessed. He replied “Because I have a conscience. My conscience was bothering me and it was the right thing to do.” At his final sentencing hearing in September, 1999, Dick personally apologized to Michelle Bosko’s family, repeatedly expressing remorse for what he had done. Dick had earlier written a letter to Nicole Williams, Danial William’s wife, where he admitted to the crime, but stated that others were more culpable; however, the letter was never sent.
In May 1999, the prosecutor dropped all charges against Danser, Farris, and Pauley.
Eric Wilson pled not guilty, and was tried by a jury in June 1999. Joseph Dick testified for the prosecution that he, Williams, Wilson, Tice, Pauley, Farris and Danser had all gathered at Williams’s apartment and then tried to enter Michelle Bosko’s apartment. When they were rebuffed, they went to the parking lot, ran into Ballard and then he led them back to the apartment where they committed the crime. Wilson’s recorded confession was played to the jury, but he took the stand and testified that he had not committed any crime. The jury also heard that Ballard’s DNA had been found in the victim and that there was no DNA or other physical evidence connecting Wilson to the scene. Wilson was acquitted of the murder charge, but was convicted of rape and sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison. His appeals were denied.
Derek Tice pled not guilty and was tried in February 2000. The trial was moved from Norfolk to Arlington because there had been too much publicity about the case in the Norfolk area by that time. Once again, Joseph Dick was the principal witness for the prosecution, testifying about Tice’s involvement in the alleged eight-man conspiracy. Tice’s confession to the police was played and one section of it, where Tice stated, “I looked at Danial [Williams] and told him ‘just stab the bitch,’” made a particularly strong impression on the jury.
The defense called Ballard as a witness. He denied any involvement, but could not explain how his DNA ended up at the crime scene. The jury found Tice guilty of capital murder and rape. He was sentenced to life in prison.
On March 22, 2000, Ballard pled guilty to rape and murder.
Postconviction: Appeals, a Retrial, and Pardons
Tice’s conviction was overturned by the Virginia Court of Appeals in May 2002, because of an improperly worded jury instruction and suppression of testimony about the letter Ballard wrote confessing that he killed Bosko. Tice was retried in Alexandria in January 2003. The jury again found Tice guilty of capital murder and rape. His second conviction was upheld on appeal.
In 2006, nine former jurors who convicted Eric Wilson, along with former FBI agents, judges, and prosecutors from around the country, sent letters to Governor Mark Warner urging him to grant clemency petitions filed by Williams, Wilson, Tice, and Dick. The governor, however, did not act on the letters or petitions. Wilson was released in 2005, but Williams, Dick and Tice remained in prison. On August 6, 2009, Governor Timothy M. Kaine granted “conditional pardons” to Danial Williams, Derek Tice and Joseph Dick. The conditional pardons provided that the sentences for all three men were reduced to time served and that they were released from prison, but they remained on parole and were required to register as sex offenders.
On September 14, 2009, Judge Richard L. Williams of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted Tice’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus, finding that Tice’s trial counsel had been ineffective for failing to move to suppress his confession. Judge Williams found that the failure to move for suppression was unreasonable given the presence of a note in a police file, which was turned over to the defense, in which a detective recorded that Tice “[T]old me he decided not to say any more,” an apparently clear invocation of his right to remain silent. Ford nevertheless resumed interrogation just 13 minutes after Tice asserted his right to remain silent and subsequently obtained Tice’s first confession.
In the wake of the conditional pardons and appeals, producers of the PBS Frontline series began looking at the case as the subject of a documentary. The resulting Frontline episode, “The Confessions”, aired in November 2010. When Frontline producers interviewed Ballard, he made a stunning public admission that he falsely accused Tice, Williams, Wilson, and Dick after he was pressured by police. Ballard said that Detective Ford told him that he would not receive sentencing consideration unless he implicated the four other men in his confession. As Ballard explained: “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. The only truth they wanted to hear (was) that I did it with someone else.” Ford denies making any such deal. Ballard told Frontline: “I alone committed the murders. . . . No one ever had anything to say or do with the case besides me.”
Detective Ford’s Conviction for Police Corruption
On October 27, 2010, a federal jury convicted Detective Robert Glenn Ford of two counts of extortion and one of lying to the FBI. He was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison. Ford was convicted of shaking down criminal defendants for thousands of dollars in return for falsely identifying them as informants who had helped solve homicides. In September 2011, the Virginia Supreme Court denied new appeals filed by Wilson, Williams, and Dick based on Ford’s conviction. The Court ruled that the three had presented no new evidence to justify the granting of a late appeal and found no connection between Ford’s convictions and the cases of the Norfolk Four.
Ford was responsible for “closing” nearly 200 homicides over his nearly 30-year career, and the identities of most of his “informants” remain secret.
Derek Tice’s Exoneration
On August 4, 2011, Derek Tice became the first of the Norfolk Four to win a full exoneration, when prosecutors announced that they would not retry him and dropped all charges.
These cases are also the subject of a book: The Wrong Guys: Murder, False Confessions and the Norfolk Four, by Tom Wells & Richard A. Leo (The New Press: 2008).