RICHMOND, Va. — Two former sailors convicted of rape and murder nearly two decades ago are innocent, a federal judge said Monday, adding the "no sane human being" could find the men guilty.
U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney Jr. said in an opinion that "by any measure," the evidence shows Danial Williams and Joseph Dick did not commit the 1997 rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko, though they pleaded guilty to it.
"Stated more simply, no sane human being could find them guilty," Gibney said.
Williams and Dick are two of the so-called "Norfolk Four," ex-sailors who have long claimed that police coerced them into falsely confessing. The four men, who were all stationed at the Navy base in Norfolk, Virginia, drew national attention when their innocence claims were backed by dozens of former FBI agents, ex-prosecutors and novelist John Grisham.
In 2009, then-Gov. Tim Kaine freed Williams, Dick and Derek Tice because of doubts about their guilt but allowed their convictions to remain. The fourth man, Eric Wilson, had already been released.
Tice's conviction has already been overturned. DNA evidence matched a fifth man, Omar Ballard, who confessed to committing the crime alone. He is serving a life sentence.
Gibney's decision Monday is merely a procedural step that allows Williams' and Dick's innocence claims to move forward. But their attorneys said they hope the judge's strongly worded opinion will convince the state to join them in ensuring the men's convictions are overturned.
"We very much hope the Commonwealth will now recognize what Judge Gibney has very clearly said his opinion — which is that these men are innocent — and they will end this process now and join us in asking the courts to dismiss the charges against all of these men and declare they are innocent," Williams' attorney Donald Saulzman said.
Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Attorney General Mark Herring, said in an email that his office needs to review the decision before commenting.
The judge's decision is based on evidence heard in April 2015. At that hearing, Williams testified that he falsely confessed to the rape and murder because he wanted the 11 hours of grueling interrogation by aggressive police detectives to end.
"I just couldn't take it anymore," Williams said. "I couldn't take being called a liar, the pressure."
Although the men are no longer in prison, their "wrongful convictions have continuing consequences," Gibney said. They have to register as sex offenders, which means that Wilson, who was convicted only of the rape, is not allowed to adopt his stepson, Gibney wrote. Courts have rejected Wilson's bids to be declared innocent because he completed his sentence. Wilson and Dick are still on parole.
"Williams and Dick must go through life with this burden of false felony convictions. Regardless of the eventual outcome of this case, it is time for the Commonwealth to free these men of the continuing shackles of their convictions," Gibney wrote.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the men were convicted nearly two decades ago, not more than two decades ago.