Norfolk four case expert Richard Leo speaks to Urban School constitutional law class about problems in justice system

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It was a horrible scene: a woman lay raped and killed in her Norfolk, Va., apartment.

Within weeks, suspicion settled on four Navy men. They all confessed to the crime.

The reaction from the community was one of relief. There was just one problem: The men were not guilty.

What should have been a short investigation process became a decade-long fight for justice that continues today.

The Norfolk case was the focus of a visit on Jan. 7 by Richard Leo, a leading national authority on false confessions and interrogation and co-author of the book, The Wrong Guys: Murder, False Confessions, and the Norfolk Four (New Press: 2008). The case is also the subject of a Frontline documentary that aired last November.

Leo discussed how the case highlights a key flaw in the criminal justice system: Although false confessions and psychological abuse during interrogation are rampant, this remains a taboo topic. Juries and judges do not consider these factors very heavily due to the common opinion that if defendants have confessed, they must be guilty. However, this is not always the case.

According to Leo and Frontline, Danial Williams, Joe Dick, Derek Tice, and Eric Wilson were all severely psychologically manipulated into confessing to the rape and murder of Michelle Bosko. Interrogations lasted as long as 14 hours.

Detective Robert Glenn Ford of the Norfolk police department, who was known for his unorthodox tactics and ability to break even the most hardened criminal, spat accusations and vile phrases at the men, saying they had all failed lie detector tests when in reality all four men had passed.

However, none of this can be fully proven because the interrogations were not recorded until the last few minutes, when the men were forced to read their confessions, which had been carefully crafted by Ford to reflect the known facts of the case and then given to the men to read aloud.

Leo explained that in the 1990s, the relatively new method of using DNA as evidence, now taken for granted by younger generations, proved many falsely-incarcerated people innocent and changed the face of the justice system. This point is crucial in the Norfolk case because the DNA found on Bosko did not match any of the four men.

“There’s something very surreal about this case,” Leo told Urban students, speaking of how the police essentially ignored the DNA mismatches. Facts included in the confessions were later proven false also, giving greater reason to doubt the accusations against the four men. However, the police did not investigate further and rather had Ford force the men to amend their confessions to mirror the new facts of the case.

All four men attribute their compliance to the overwhelming psychological pressure they experienced and desire to have this situation end. Also, everyone surrounding the men was convinced they were guilty, including their lawyers and parents, so they were put at a greater disadvantage by this lack of support.

When a DNA match was finally found, the man, Omar Ballard, stated he committed the crime alone and knew facts to which only the perpetrator could have access. Even then the police did not rethink their approach; the four innocent men remain charged with the crime and are fighting to free themselves.

Ballard was offered the opportunity to lessen his sentence if he testified against the four men. He did so, although today he maintains that he committed the crime alone and that the Navy men are innocent.

The Frontline documentary describes the facts of the case in full and includes interviews with the wrongly convicted men. It is a valuable insight into the problem with unsupervised interrogation. Readers can find a link to The Confessions at urbanlegendnews.org.

Had the interrogations of these four men been documented in full, this situation would never have escalated to the point of ruining the lives of innocent men. Partly in response to this case and partly due to evolving ideas about justice, “the movement of the nation is really towards full electronic recordings” said Leo.

“There are high ideals of how the legal system should work,” Leo said, “but then there is legal realism — how the law works on the ground.”

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