November 9, 2010
Eight men charged. Five confessions. But only one DNA match. Why would four innocent men confess to a brutal crime they didn't commit?
In The Confessions, FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel (Innocence Lost, An Ordinary Crime) investigates the conviction of four men -- current and former sailors in the U.S. Navy -- for the rape and murder of a Norfolk, Va., woman in 1997. In the first television interviews with the "Norfolk Four" since their release, Bikel learns of some of the high-pressure police interrogation techniques -- the threat of the death penalty, sleep deprivation, intimidation -- that led each of the men to confess, despite the lack of any evidence linking them to the crime.
Twenty-five-year-old Danial Williams, married for 11 days, was the first to be arrested for the rape and murder of Michelle Bosko. He tells FRONTLINE how he came to confess after 11 hours of interrogation: "Being in a small room, and you have a person sitting over across the table from you that's getting in your face, yelling at you, calling you a liar, poking you in the chest with their finger, and then turns around and says, 'Well, I can help you if you tell me the truth,'" Williams explains. "It went on and on and on throughout the night, with them calling me a liar, telling me I needed to tell the truth. And I kept telling them: 'I am telling you the truth. I didn't do it.' I kept telling them over and over. ... I should have stood my ground."
Instead, Williams gave the Norfolk police detectives a confession. And when that confession proved inconsistent with the forensic evidence, detectives went back to him for an additional confession that better fit the facts. And Williams, once again, gave it to them. He got a court-appointed lawyer.
"No one in Virginia believes that you confess to a murder you didn't commit; no one believes it," says Danny Shipley, Williams' attorney. "And to be quite frank with you, when you approach a case, ... [the death penalty] changes everything. All your decisions that you make are guided by the fact that, if you make the wrong decision, you make the wrong call, your client is dead."
Williams' DNA failed to match the DNA at the crime scene, but that didn't save him. Police picked up Williams' roommate, Joe Dick, and began another interrogation.
"They started asking me where I was when this happened, and I told them that I was on the ship," Dick said. But Dick's interrogation was conducted by one of Norfolk's most formidable detectives, Robert Glenn Ford, who had a reputation for getting confessions. "Ford's saying I'm lying," Dick tells FRONTLINE. "He's starting to get ticked off. He's raising his voice. He keeps coming back with: 'We know you were there. We can prove you were there. You can get the death penalty.' I kept denying it. We went and did a polygraph. He comes back with the results, and he says I'm still lying, that I failed the polygraph. ... Eventually I'd had enough of him, and I just wanted to tell him anything to get him off my back and to shut him up. I was tired; emotionally, mentally worn down." He gave a confession.
Then, confused by police theories and interrogations, Dick started to believe in his own guilt. He implicated another sailor, Eric Wilson, who also confessed. In the end, four men would confess to the rape and murder of Michelle Bosko and another three would be arrested before an eighth man, a convicted rapist named Omar Ballard, was found to be the only DNA match for the Bosko murder. Ballard confessed to the rape and murder of Michelle Bosko, and said that he did it alone -- a statement that fit the forensic facts. But with seven other people already in jail, the police and prosecution refused to change course. Instead, they presented a new theory of the crime in which Ballard met the group outside, and all eight men committed gang rape and murder. From an initial theory of one assailant, namely Danial Williams, the prosecution theory now involved eight, including Ballard.
In a recent interview from prison, Ballard tells FRONTLINE that police pressured him to say the other men participated in the crime with him, a statement that he says 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 says. "The only truth they wanted to hear [was] that I did it with someone else."
"Even when there's other evidence of innocence, the confession overrides that evidence. People ignore, jurors ignore that evidence," says law professor Richard Leo, who has studied false confessions. "If they were rational, objective, fair-minded police and prosecutors, they would have let everybody else go. But they couldn't admit what was so obvious: [that] they made a mistake, a big mistake. Four people had been interrogated coercively, confessed to a crime they didn't commit, and instead of acknowledging that mistake and these individuals' innocence, they tried to link Omar Ballard to these individuals. They tried to make it a group crime."
All four sailors are now out of prison -- one served his sentence, and the other three were granted conditional pardons last summer, after some 11 years in prison. But the men were not exonerated as felons or sex offenders. "I basically built myself a new cell, my bedroom, ... because that's where I'm safe," Derek Tice, another of the Norfolk Four, tells FRONTLINE. "All I did was trade one cell for another."
Earlier this summer, Detective Glenn Ford was indicted for extorting money from defendants in exchange for getting them a favorable treatment. He was tried in U.S. District Court in Norfolk and took the stand in his own defense. On Oct. 27, 2010 Ford was found guilty on two of four extortion charges and one charge of lying to the FBI. Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 25, 2011.