April 9, 2008
Anything You Say
When the door closes and the interrogation begins, the quest for truth can run tragically off course. Clemency petitions on Gov. Tim Kaine’s desk raise disturbing questions about false confessions.
by Margaret Edds
Wait. Make that stabbed her to death.
An amended statement four and a half hours later cleaned up the error. “I was putting my hands over her mouth, pushing her mouth closed, trying anything to keep her quiet. I started really panicking … and I saw a knife. I picked it up, and I stabbed her about three times,” the transcript reads.
A murder. A confession. Case closed.
A couple decades ago, that would have been that. But not after the realization in the mid-1980s in Great Britain that the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in human tissue or fluids — blood, hair, semen — can pinpoint criminals with a precision only dreamed of by Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes.
Conversely, DNA can exonerate the innocent, which is almost surely what should have happened when test results on cells taken from under Moore-Bosko’s fingernails and on semen found on her body and a blanket came back a few months later eliminating Williams as the source.
Norfolk police and prosecutors adopted an alternate theory: If the genetic material did not belong to Williams, then someone helped him murder Moore-Bosko. Williams had, after all, confessed.
The most likely accomplice was Danial and Nicole Williams’ roommate, Joe Dick. After a seven-hour interrogation, Dick — a 21-year-old sailor and Maryland native with clear intellectual limitations — confessed as well. Then, confound it, his DNA also turned up a mismatch.
What evolved from there is a stunning example of the spiraling effects of clinging to a flawed premise. Chasing an elusive DNA link, police arrested more and more suspects until the count stood at seven white males, young Navy sailors at the time of Moore-Bosko’s death, none with any prior criminal record.
Inconveniently, two of the seven produced solid alibis, but four confessed, and still there was no DNA match.
Eric Wilson of Texas, the third man charged, had recanted his confession almost immediately. But when he went to trial, Dick testified against him. “Innocent people do not confess,” prosecutor Valerie Bowen told the jurors, who recommended eight and a half years for rape after listening over and over to a recording of Wilson’s confession.
Derek Tice, who had supplied the names of the fifth, sixth and seventh men arrested after he was tracked down in Orlando, Fla., also recanted his confession. Rejecting a plea deal, he went to trial charged with capital murder. Again, from the stand, Dick parroted the government’s version of events.
A sullen Omar Ballard took the stand and disingenuously denied having anything to do with the murder. (Today, he is back to acknowledging guilt and insisting that he acted alone.)
The jury listened to an audiotape of Tice’s confession, but no recording existed of his interrogation; he, too, was sentenced to two life terms. At a retrial in 2003, jurors again heard the audiotape, but not an expert on false confessions, as requested by the defense team. Jurors have the ability “to understand that confessions can be coerced,” said Judge Poston, denying the defense request. The life terms stood.
In March 2000, Ballard pleaded guilty and received two life sentences.
Without Tice’s cooperation, the government’s case against the other three men charged in the murder collapsed, which most likely would have happened anyway. One of them had a worksheet and an ATM withdrawal placing him in Warminster, Pa. — hundreds of miles from Norfolk — at the time of the crime. The other could produce computer, Internet and phone records showing him talking and e-mailing with a girlfriend in Australia throughout the night.
Such inopportune facts do not dissuade former Norfolk prosecutor D.J. Hansen and others who investigated and tried the original cases from contending that too few men were convicted, not too many. “Our view is they were all [eight] involved,” says Hansen, now a prosecutor in Chesapeake, in a recent telephone conversation.
An impressive list of experts with no ax to grind — former Attorneys General Richard Cullen, Anthony Troy, Stephen Rosenthal and Andrew Miller; former Virginia Bar Association President Tazewell Ellett, and a dozen former judges and federal prosecutors from across the nation— say otherwise.
As they point out, not a shred of evidence, save confessions rife with inconsistencies and errors, links the convicted men, except Ballard, to the crime.
By the prosecution’s theory, eight minimally connected men converged in an apartment complex on a summer night and conspired to commit murder. Undetected by anyone and without leaving a mark on the doorway, they gained entrance to the Moore-Bosko apartment, where they took turns raping and stabbing Michelle.
Yet nothing in the apartment was awry, the wounds were inconsistent with multiple assailants, and only one man left forensic evidence behind. “It is crystal clear that only one person committed this crime,” said Cullen, a former U.S. attorney and chairman of the law firm McGuireWoods, at a press conference earlier this year. “Justice without doubt dictates that the governor act.”
“Well, you know, my son when he was 10 years old, there is no way you could convince him that he raped and murdered somebody,” said Gary Close, a commonwealth’s attorney in Culpeper County and a reporter at the 1984 trial of Earl Washington Jr. “He’d deny it, and I don’t buy that at all.”
Soon after Washington was pardoned in 2000 in the death of a Culpeper housewife, Close expressed disbelief that an innocent man — even one with the IQ of a 10-year-old — would confess to a murder he did not commit.
At the time, confusion remained about DNA evidence in the case. Today, all doubt of the former death row prisoner’s innocence is erased, and Close has been proven wrong.
As counterintuitive as the false confession of a mentally challenged farmhand might be, it’s a far greater leap to conclude that four men, some of normal intelligence, would admit to a crime to which they had no connection.
“People ask me, ‘Why would a normal, sane individual confess to a crime they didn’t do?’” says Jim Trainum, a Washington, D.C., police detective who grew up in Henrico County’s Lakeside neighborhood and now lectures on interrogative pitfalls, including false confessions. “I say, ‘Why would a normal, sane individual confess to a crime they did do?’”
In both instances, the motivation is the same. Interrogation techniques lead them to believe “it is to their advantage to tell me what I want to hear,” says Trainum.
The starting point for unraveling the mystery of false confessions is to accept that they occur. The evidence is indisputable. Scores of false admissions, sometimes including multiple confessions in a single case, have been documented and confirmed in recent decades.
In one of the most notorious, a 28-year-old investment banker made national headlines after being raped and brutally beaten as she jogged through Central Park in April 1989. Of five teenagers convicted of the crime, four confessed on videotape, some with their parents in the room.
Then in January 2002, a serial rapist and murderer confessed that he alone had attacked the jogger. DNA matched, other alleged evidence disintegrated, and the young men — who were up to little good in Central Park that night, but had nothing to do with the jogger — were released.
In another stunning case, dubbed the Buddhist Temple Massacre, nine people were murdered early on Aug. 10, 1991, at the Wat Promkunaram temple outside Phoenix, Ariz. Police extracted confessions from five men, some of whom seemed to supply details unknown to the police.
Astonishingly, the murder weapons turned up later in the possession of two teenagers who described the crime scene in detail, providing incontrovertible evidence of their guilt.
In a seminal study published in the North Carolina Law Review in March 2004, Northwestern University law professor Steven Drizin and University of San Francisco associate professor of law Richard Leo analyzed 125 cases of “proven” interrogation-induced false confessions between 1971 and 2002. They included the Norfolk Four case in the list.
Understanding false confessions was far easier in the 19th and early-20th centuries, when police were free to inflict “bodily pain and psychological torment,” Drizin and Leo acknowledged. Beating, punching, kicking, suffocation and a variety of tortures were accepted as legitimate investigative tools.
In the modern era, psychological interrogation has replaced such crude forms of extracting information (at least on U.S. soil, where the legal system would hardly tolerate tactics employed by American troops in Guantanamo Bay). But verbal abuse, physical discomfort and even lying about the results of polygraph tests, the existence of eyewitnesses or the presence of damning evidence are all sanctioned.
An interrogation is “designed to break the anticipated resistance of an individual who is presumed guilty,” Drizin and Leo explain. “It is intentionally structured to promote isolation, anxiety, fear, powerlessness, and hopelessness.”
Once the suspect feels trapped, the next step is for police to convince him that confession is the most logical response. Not only will cooperation have the immediate benefit of ending a mentally excruciating experience; it also may ensure more lenient treatment down the road.
At that point, a seemingly illogical act becomes logical.
Unfortunately, techniques designed to trap a guilty suspect can sometimes ensnare an innocent one. It’s up to police to make sure that the details of a confession fit and that the suspect didn’t glean his information from the interrogation itself. As Trainum knows, the thrill of wrapping up a case can steamroller objectivity.
Trainum’s most popular training lecture, “False Confessions and Investigative Pitfalls,” grew out of a personal debacle. He knows how easy it is to take a false confession because he’s been on the receiving end.
“I’m just a cop who made a mistake, and I wanted to understand why,” he says.
The year was 1994, and Trainum was newly assigned to the homicide division. A Voice of America employee turned up missing and was found beaten to death near the Anacostia River. The man’s credit card had been used for a Chinese dinner, and an ATM camera captured a white female using the man’s bank card.
A tip pointed detectives to a woman who resembled the ATM photo, whose father worked at Voice of America and who associated with a tough gang. After a couple hours of interrogation, her denials gave way to an admission of credit card fraud and then, after a few more hours, to murder.
Along the way, there was no shouting or threatening, Trainum says, just a persistent hammering on her apparent guilt. In her confession, “she was giving us amazing things that she shouldn’t have known: ‘I went to this restaurant; I purchased this type of food,’” Trainum says. “She’s a cold-blooded little bitch in the recap.”
Case closed, almost.
Following up on evidence for a trial, Trainum retrieved the checkout log from the homeless shelter where the woman lived. There, in her own handwriting, was a clear alibi for the hours of the crime.
“Oh my God, I almost wretched all over the car,” he says. He and his colleagues tried to think of any way possible that the murder could have occurred between her shelter comings and goings. “We were almost having her beamed up by Scotty,” he says.
In the end, they had to admit that she could not have been in two places at one time. The confession was a ruse.
As luck would have it, a portion of the interrogation had been videotaped, and Trainum studied the detective-suspect exchange. At first, he saw nothing wrong. But over time, he recognized that he had picked up only on comments that fit his theory, while ignoring contradictory ones.
And, much as he thought the police had not revealed any of the details spewed back by the woman, they had. How did she know so much about the Chinese dinner, for instance? Because they had shown her the bill when asking if the signature was hers.
“We can all make mistakes. We can go down the wrong path. You have to be able to spot it, recognize it and say, that’s where I went wrong,” Trainum says. “With a jury, a confession trumps everything.”
Armed with such expertise, Trainum agreed to review the Norfolk Four case for the high-powered team of New York and Washington, D.C., lawyers working pro bono to clear Williams, Dick, Wilson and Tice.
The attorneys offered a stipend, but Trainum refused to take it. “I don’t like hired guns,” he says.
“This is like a perfect storm. I understand what happened in the first couple [of confessions]. But after a while, somebody should have stepped in and said, ‘This is a train wreck,’” he says. “I have no clue in my heart why these guys aren’t out of jail.”
Sussex II state prison, rising out of Southeastern Virginia’s peanut farms and piney woods, seems as gray and as blank as the lives it warehouses. Through a glass window, Derek Tice speaks into a telephone receiver and tries to make sense of the nonsensical.
“I spent my entire life believing in the justice system,” he says during an interview in mid-March. “I still believe in that, but I’m sitting here in an alternate reality.”
By his recollection, Tice’s life fell apart June 18, 1998. A 28-year-old ex-sailor, working as a steel press operator and living with his girlfriend in Orlando, Tice got a phone call that day from a Norfolk police detective. The man said he needed to clear up some details before Danial Williams — a good friend of Tice’s — went to trial. Tice suspected nothing.
The phone rang again at about 11:30 p.m. A Florida police detective asked Tice to step outside. “I put on shorts and walked out on the porch of the trailer, and all hell broke loose,” he said. “There were at least 12 officers in bullet-proof vests, shotguns, pistols drawn.”
When he was extradited to Virginia, “I even told my girlfriend: ‘Don’t worry. When I get to Norfolk, we’ll straighten it out, and I’ll be back in a week.’”
A smallish man with dark hair and pale skin, Tice flashes a painful grimace when asked how he came to confess. “I hate this part, getting back into that room or anything about it,” he says.
As described by Tice, the interrogation space was tiny, no windows, one door, with “yucky yellow walls,” permeated by the stench of urine and sweat. Detective R.G. Ford stood over him yelling, “‘You’re an f—ing liar, Derek. We know what you did. … You keep lying and you’re going to die.’”
Ford told Tice that an eyewitness could identify him and that his fingerprints were found at the scene. And later, “‘You make this statement and we’ll stand up for you, but if you continue saying this bullshit, you’re going to die.’
“I make it sound so casual,” Tice says, “but it wasn’t. It was hell on earth.”
At some point the prisoner concluded: “I’m not getting out of this room until he hears what he wants to hear.”
That Tice publicly persisted in the confession for months, even naming additional men as part of the conspiracy, reflected his determination to stay alive, he says. “Self-preservation is No. 1 to humanity, and it kicked in.”
In an interview with The Virginian-Pilot in September 2006, Ford — since retired — denied yelling or physically threatening Tice. He acknowledged, however, that he lied in telling Tice that multiple co-defendants would testify against him and that DNA linked him to the scene.
Because the interrogations weren’t taped, it’s impossible to reconcile Ford’s assertions with Tice’s claims and those of others of the Norfolk Four that they were verbally battered.
In a letter to The Virginian-Pilot dated Jan. 11, 2006, former prosecutors D.J. Hansen and Derek Wagner laid out several reasons why the chilling and often-graphic confessions ought to be believed: three separate juries heard Tice’s and Wilson’s claims of innocence and discounted them; Dick testified three times “under withering cross examinations” that he and the others were guilty; and the absence of forensic evidence doesn’t prove someone was not involved in a crime.
“Criminals often do not leave evidence of their presence behind at a crime, or even homeowners in their own home,” the attorneys wrote.
As described by British psychologist Gisli Gudjonsson, one of the pioneers of the literature of false confessions, the suspect begins the police interview with a clear recollection of not having committed the alleged offense. But “subtle manipulative influences by the interrogator” gradually bring the suspect to distrust his own recollections and beliefs.
Riddled with self-doubt and confusion, he simply alters his perception of reality.
What sort of person would make that leap? Experts say a highly suggestible, insecure person, plagued by low self-esteem, anxiety and a fear of negative evaluation, one schooled to defer to authority and coveting the sort of positive feedback that a confession might produce.
In other words, Joe Dick.
A former altar boy, church volunteer and Boy Scout who grew up in Baltimore, Dick is uniformly described as an “odd duck,” with intelligence on the low end of normal. A childhood head injury may have exacerbated his problems. Cowed by a domineering father and a social outcast in high school, he displayed a cognitive and social fragility that trailed him to the Navy.
“Joe was a — he needed special attention. He had a hard time following simple instructions,” Senior Chief Petty Officer Michael Ziegler, Dick’s boss at the time of the murder, testified in an appeal hearing on Tice’s conviction.
(Ziegler believes that Dick was on board the USS Saipan the night of the murder, but Dick never went to trial, so Ziegler was never called to testify. After a decade, the Navy logs that might prove or disprove Dick’s whereabouts no longer exist.)
Ziegler recalled as typical an incident when he asked Dick to paint a three-inch fluorescent border around a doorway. “[Joe] just dipped the paint, the brush in the bucket, and just started slopping paint all over,” he said. “You could see spilled paint on the floor and he walked through it. His footprints went across the deck. And where he got his hand in the paint and leaned up against the bulkhead, there was his handprint where he had leaned up as he was painting. … That was a typical Joseph Dick maneuver.”
Today, Dick is incarcerated at Wallens Ridge State Prison, a super-max in the far southwest corner of the state intended for the worst of Virginia’s prisoners. His attorneys say he has been assaulted multiple times by other prisoners in the last decade.
Wilson completed his eight-and-a-half-year sentence for Moore-Bosko’s rape and now lives in Texas.
Williams, whose wife, Nicole, died of ovarian cancer four months after his arrest, is housed at Sussex II, about 45 miles southeast of Richmond, as is Tice.
Tice married his girlfriend in March 1999, just days before Ballard was charged with Moore-Bosko’s murder. He hasn’t seen his wife in almost eight years. Recently, he filed for divorce.
“I live in a 5½-foot-by-11-foot cell with one other person, a toilet, sink, two beds. There’s a 45-watt bulb burning 24-7 at eye level. I have kids tell me when I can lie down, when I can eat, when I can go outside,” Tice says, describing his constricted world.
“It’s, for lack of a better word, hell.”
Clemency petitions for the Norfolk Four, filed in 2005 in the last months of former Gov. Mark Warner’s term, sit on Gov. Tim Kaine’s desk.
Resolving them is no easy matter. For Kaine to join four former attorneys general in proclaiming innocence would cement an indictment of the criminal justice system breathtaking in scope. Yet failure can also become a catalyst for essential reforms.
If Virginia, like eight others states and a growing number of localities, including Norfolk and Washington, D.C., videotaped not just confessions but interrogations, the Norfolk Four cases might have been resolved long ago. Judges and juries could have watched Detective Ford’s questioning and decided for themselves what led four men to confess.
“Our experience has been great,” says Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney John R. “Jack” Doyle, who spearheaded Norfolk’s recent move to taping interrogations in homicide cases. It may be no accident that Doyle, as a private attorney, defended one of the last men charged and then released in the Moore-Bosko murder. He declines to comment on the case.
On taped interrogations, however, he is effusive. “Our hand — both society’s and the prosecution’s office — has been greatly strengthened by having this piece of evidence,” he says.
Such statewide reform might salvage a larger purpose from one of the most disastrous legal cases in Virginia history.
||Truth in Justice