One of the Norfolk Four Makes a Final Appeal to the Supreme Court

April 3, 2013

Eric Wilson served more than seven years for a rape that seems almost certain that he didn’t commit.

FRONTLINE profiled Wilson and three other Navy sailors in our 2010 film The Confessions Although all four initially denied involvement in the rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko, each confessed under interrogation.

Wilson confessed after an all-night interrogation, during which police told him he had failed his polygraph. In a later opinion (pdf), a judge described the investigation and Wilson’s trial as “rife with gross police misconduct.” (Follow the full timeline of the case here.)

In the film, Wilson described what happened in the interrogation room with Detective Robert Glenn Ford:

They told me what they wanted to hear and I repeated it back to them. Everything I said was scripted by Ford. All the details I gave about the apartment were because of photos he showed me of the crime scene. I was so mentally and emotionally drained by them that I didn’t care what the truth was. I was willing to tell them whatever they wanted to hear just to make them stop.

There was no evidence linking Wilson or any of the other men, who collectively became known as the “Norfolk Four” to the crime. DNA found at the scene excluded the four as the rapists. But their confessions sealed their fate. All were convicted of the rape, and the other three of her murder as well.

Two years later, in 1999, Omar Ballard, an inmate already serving time for another assault, bragged about Moore-Bosko’s rape and murder in a letter to another inmate. When his DNA was matched to the crime scene, Ballard confessed. Unlike the Norfolk Four, Ballard provided accurate details about the killing. He also said he had acted alone. Ballard was sentenced to life in prison.

Ten years later, three of the men were conditionally pardoned by then-Governor Tim Kaine, which means they were released from prison, but still considered convicted. Kaine said at the time that despite questions surrounding their guilt, it was “difficult to completely ignore the entire weight of these confessions.” Since Wilson was already out of prison, having served his time for the rape, the pardon didn’t apply to him.

Since then, the Norfolk four have been trying to clear their records. One, Derek Tice, was fully exonerated in 2011. But that same year, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the convictions of the other three.

Because his conviction still stands, Wilson has to register as a sex offender. He can’t get a passport or pass a background check to adopt his wife’s 9-year-old son, or even attend events at the boy’s school. It’s a challenge even to find a place to live: Nobody wants a registered sex offender as their next-door neighbor.

Now, Wilson is making what’s likely to be his final appeal, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wilson’s case is complicated because he wasn’t pardoned and has already served his sentence. The law allows people to challenge their convictions if they are still in custody, either in prison or on parole. Wilson argues that because he is a registered sex-offender, subject to monitoring by the state for the rest of his life, he’s still effectively in custody and therefore should be able to challenge his conviction. Last August, a Virginia court of appeals disagreed (pdf). But in a dissenting opinion, Judge James A. Wynn, Jr. wrote:

I am deeply troubled that our legal system would be construed to prevent a person with compelling evidence of his actual innocence and wrongful conviction from accessing a forum in which to clear his name.

The Supreme Court has requested a brief from the state of Virginia by April 25, and should decide whether to take the case within the next two to three months.

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