“No sane human being could find them guilty,”
—U.S. District Judge John Gibney’s opinion, Sep. 23, 2016
finally clearing two Norfolk Four members of crimes they did not commit
Derek Tice, Danial Williams, Joseph Dick, Jr., and Eric Wilson, collectively known as “The Norfolk Four,” were wrongfully convicted of a 1997 rape and murder based on false confessions. Each was subjected to high-pressure interrogation tactics, including threats of death penalty and questionable use of lie detector tests. The details of the confessions did not match the crime scene, the other confessions, or the confession of the real killer.
All of the DNA and forensic evidence in this case pointed to one man, Omar Ballard, and only his confession matched the physical evidence. Ballard is currently serving a life sentence and has sworn under oath that he committed the crime alone.
In 2009, three of the four men were freed from prison after Gov. Tim Kaine granted them conditional pardons, still requiring them to register as sex offenders and felons; Eric Wilson had already served out his sentence. Derek Tice later had his conviction vacated, becoming the first of the Norfolk Four to be fully exonerated.
“This case—and the frequency of false confessions in criminal cases—shows that common sense reforms like the videotaping of interrogations are needed to protect the innocent and our communities.” —Shawn Ambrust, MAIP Executive Director
On Oct. 31, 2016, a federal judge at long last vacated the convictions of Danial Williams and Joseph Dick after finding them innocent of the crimes.
Led by longtime MAIP Board member Donald Salzman of Skadden Arps and George Kendall of Squire Sanders, Williams and Tice challenged their convictions in federal court – arguing several constitutional claims, including that they were actually innocent. In spring of 2015, U.S. District Judge John Gibney held a hearing to determine whether they had made a sufficient showing of innocence to excuse procedural defaults on other claims, and in September 2016, he found that they were innocent, writing that “no sane person could find them guilty.” The opinion prompted the Commonwealth of Virginia to stop defending the conviction after more than a decade, and in October, Judge Gibney vacated their convictions, giving the Commonwealth of Virginia 60 days to decide whether to retry them.
Eric Wilson was unable to challenge his conviction in court because he completed his sentence and was not under supervision.
Finally, on March 21, 2017, Governor Terry McAuliffe granted full pardons to all four men. A statement from McAuliffe’s office said: “These pardons close the final chapter on a grave injustice that has plagued these four men for nearly 20 years.”
Because false confessions are such a common cause of wrongful convictions, MAIP advocates for reforms that can reduce the risk of such confessions. These reforms include legislation mandating the electronic recording of interrogations and training for police officers on proper interrogation tactics.
Read more about this case:
The Washington Post – ‘Norfolk 4,’ wrongly convicted of rape and murder, pardoned by Gov. McAuliffe (Mar 21, 2017)
The Washington Post – U.S. judge vacates two more convictions in ‘Norfolk 4’ rape and murder case (Oct 31, 2016)
FRONTLINE / PBS – One of the Norfolk Four Makes a Final Appeal to the Supreme Court (Apr 3, 2013)
The Virginian-Pilot – Charges dropped, Norfolk Four member cleared (Aug 5, 2011)
The Washington Post – 3 Members of ‘Norfolk 4’ Granted Conditional Pardons in 1997 Rape, Killing (Aug 7, 2009)
The New York Times – Virginia Governor Sets Free 3 Sailors Convicted in Rape and Murder (Aug 6, 2009)
WTOP – Ex-detective: Man convicted in murder had crush on victim (Apr 17, 2005)