Interview Danny Shipley

Danny Shipley

He is the court-appointed attorney for Danial Williams, who was the first man to be charged with the rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on March 23, 2010.

How unusual was this case?

Extremely unusual. It's the most unusual case that I've ever been involved in. It's the most unusual case that I've heard occurring in the state of Virginia. ... I predicted years ago that this would be some type of movie based on the facts of the case and how many ups and downs and twists and turns there were in it. I've never seen anything like it, and I really hope never to see anything like it again.

How did you become Williams' lawyer, and how did you see the case?

In Virginia, you have to take certain training to become a capital-qualified attorney to represent people in capital murder cases, and I've had the training and was on the list of capital-approved attorneys for about 10 years prior to this case coming up. And I'd handled quite a few capital cases, a lot of which pled, but a lot of which did actually go to trial. I worked on about three cases with [attorney] Mr. [James] Broccoletti on capital cases, pretty famous capital cases in the area.

“All decisions that you make are guided by -- if you make the wrong decision, your client is dead.”

What happens ... is that when a capital case comes up, the judge in General District Court is alerted to that fact. Somebody has been arrested overnight, it's a capital case, and so the judge needs to find a capital-qualified attorney to assign to the case immediately. A lot of times, if there's somebody in the courthouse, he'll appoint that person. If not, they'll just go down a list and call somebody and say, "Will you take this case?"

I just happened to be there that day because I'm in that court building probably four days a week. Judge [Ray W.] Dezern, who I've known for a long time, saw me and asked me if I would take the case. I believe that I had actually heard something on the radio that morning about the case, so I knew what it was about and what the charges were. And I was appointed that morning when he was advised of his right to counsel, and I believe that I actually spoke to him the same day.

I know I met his parents and his wife that morning and told them all that I knew about the case at that time -- what he was charged with, and I had been told by someone involved with the commonwealth that he had given a confession. ... I think Ms. [Rhea] Williams thought I was saying that he was guilty, and what I was actually saying [was] he's got a problem because he's confessed. That's what I knew.

You're asked to represent Williams. What do you find?

... We didn't speak about the facts of the case when I first met him. I did not ask him if he was guilty or whether he had done it; it's not something that I would ask someone. As a matter of fact, it's something that a criminal defense attorney rarely asks their clients: "Did you do it?"

Basically, what you want to look at is not whether they claim they did it, but what's the evidence. Of course, at that time, I knew almost nothing about the evidence. ... I knew that there was an allegation of a rape-murder and that he had given a confession in writing, and that's all I knew.

What happens when somebody comes to you in that position -- capital murder and a confession? What do you do?

Well, what you do basically is file what's called a discovery motion, requiring that the court will require the commonwealth to provide me with certain types of evidence. Discovery in Virginia is very limited. They don't have to show you everything they have. They have to give you his statements. They have to give you any physical evidence they have at that time, which I believe they had a preliminary autopsy report which I would have had probably within a few days; [and they have to give you] a copy of his confession. ...

So you realized this was a big challenge?

Oh, yes. I've represented people before who have confessed to capital murder, none of which actually went to trial. They were usually worked out for something less than capital murder, maybe a term of years or something of that nature. ... I have not personally handled many capital murders where there was a confession, particularly a written confession. So it was a little unusual.

And it's not good.

No, it's not good. Anytime you've got a police officer or a witness or jailhouse snitch or whoever saying that guy confessed, that complicates the case. That's a problem that you really would prefer not to have. ...

Did he claim that he was not guilty?

He did claim that, and I cannot tell you the exact time frame in which he claimed it. I'm pretty sure...

He did claim he was not guilty?

Yes. Yes.


Yes, he did tell me that he was not guilty, yes.


He told me that he was not guilty of the offense at some point. I don't remember, first meeting, second meeting, third meeting, but he did tell me he was not guilty.

You didn't believe him?

The confession gave me problems, OK, and as more confessions [came] in later on implicating him, it gave me more problems concerning whether he was guilty or innocent. But the determination by me of whether he's guilty or innocent is really of no importance at all.

You thought he was in denial? ...

Well, I think that ... he may have been in denial, particularly when the others, Mr. [Eric] Wilson, Mr. [Derek] Tice, Mr. [Joseph] Dick, kept confessing, implicating him. And it was like waves coming into the beach. Every few months, someone else would come in and confess and say Danial was there, involved, and it was looking very, very bad for Danial because of his confession and the confession of other co-defendants.

And that's something you really have to worry about: ... If you've got co-defendants, somebody is looking to cut a deal, which is certainly what happened here. And so when you've got other co-defendants implicating him, then you're saying, I not only have to deal with his confession now; I have to deal with the co-defendant or co-defendants who are going to say, "Yes, we were there; we saw him do it." That's more evidence that you have to deal with at a potential trial.

Isn't it true that a rigorous investigation would have found Ballard?

I don't see how you can say that he would have been found. We were provided physical evidence, so we knew there were some problems with the physical evidence. The so-called pristine crime scene is a problem.

For the prosecution.

For the prosecution, yes, it is a problem. There was some problems with the way entry was gained into the apartment, where one of the defendants said they used a ball-peen hammer or something, and yet there was no damage to the door. But in Virginia, problems with the physical evidence are trumped usually by a confession, and if you look at the jury comments in the Tice case, they said we know there was problems with the physical evidence, but the confession was all that really mattered. The confession washed everything away. Keep in mind, I've been doing this for 35 years in Virginia, and I know how Virginia jurors are. Virginia jurors are very unskeptical of police testimony.

They believe it?

They believe it. No one in Virginia believes that you confess to a murder you didn't commit. No one believes it. And that's true of judges, true of lawyers. No one believes it, and they'll tell you again and again: "I don't believe someone confesses to a murder they didn't commit." And that's what I'm looking at. And to be quite frank with you, when you approach a case, how we're going to handle this case, are we going to try to make a deal, or are we going to go to court and try the case, death changes everything. Death: ... 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. ...

In Virginia.

In Virginia, your client is dead. We're very, very good at killing people, executing people [in Virginia]. We're in the top two or three every year. ...

So in my opinion, which was later ratified by the jury foreman in the Tice case, all that mattered to them was the confession. They said we know there were problems with the physical evidence, but it was all washed away ... [because of] the confession.

They might have killed him?

I think there was an excellent chance. You know, Mr. [Greg] McCormack represented Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson was the first person to go to trial. And from what I understand, although the death penalty was taken off the table at the last minute, while the death penalty was on the table, Mr. McCormack advised his client that, "I believe there's a good chance you're going to get convicted, and if you get convicted, you're going to get the death p