RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia's governor pardoned four former sailors who became known as the "Norfolk Four," ending a decades-long fight to clear the men of rape and murder convictions based on intimidating police interrogations.
A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the governor granted absolute pardons for the men in the 1997 rape and killing of Michelle Moore-Bosko. DNA evidence linked another man, Omar Ballard, to the crimes. He acknowledged that he was solely responsible and is serving a life sentence.
The "Norfolk Four" got their name because they were stationed at the Navy base in Norfolk. Their case drew widespread attention when their innocence claims were backed by dozens of former FBI agents, ex-prosecutors and crime novelist John Grisham.
One of the men, Eric Wilson, said the governor has "given us our lives back with these full pardons."
"We have been haunted by these wrongful convictions for 20 years, which have created profound pain, hardships, and stress for each of us and our families. We now look forward to rebuilding our reputations and our lives," Wilson said in a statement.
One of the men's attorneys said they will now qualify for compensation from the state.
Three of the men — Danial Williams, Joseph Dick and Derek Tice — were granted conditional pardons in 2009 by then-Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine and released from prison because of doubts about their guilt, but their convictions remained on the books. Wilson, who was convicted only of rape, had already been released.
A federal judge vacated Williams and Dick's convictions in October, declaring that "no sane human being" could find them guilty. Tice had his convictions erased in 2009.
A full pardon from McAuliffe was the only remedy for Wilson after he failed to get his conviction overturned in court because he had already completed his sentence when he brought the challenge. Because Wilson was convicted of rape, he has been forced to register as a sex offender and been barred from adopting his stepson.
Attorneys for the men argued absolute pardons from the governor carried greater weight than court rulings and were essential to helping the men rebuild their lives and reputations.
"These pardons close the final chapter on a grave injustice that has plagued these four men for nearly 20 years," McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said in an email.
George Kendall, an attorney for Dick, called on the state to investigate how the prosecutions went wrong in order to prevent "future miscarriages of justice."
"The 'Norfolk Four' and their families have lost 20 years of their lives because of the systemic failure of the Norfolk police department to seek justice and truth in this case. It's not enough to legally right this specific wrong," Kendall said in a statement.
Don Salzman, an attorney for Williams, said the men qualify for compensation from the state.
"I think compensation is absolutely the right thing to do now that the governor has officially recognized that our clients are innocent," Salzman said.
Williams, who lived in the same apartment building as Moore-Bosko, became the prime suspect when one of her neighbors told police that Williams was romantically obsessed with the victim, a former Norfolk detective has said. That neighbor was also a childhood friend of Ballard's.
Police focused on Wilson after Dick — who was living with Williams at the time — mentioned someone named "Eric." Dick later identified Tice as one of his accomplices, according to court documents.
Prosecutors argued that the men raped Moore-Bosko while her husband was away at sea and then passed around a knife and took turns stabbing her. Their case relied solely on the men's coerced confessions as no physical evidence connected them to the crime.
Judge John A. Gibney Jr., who tossed the convictions for William and Dick, said the evidence points to a different likely scenario: Moore-Bosko let Ballard into her apartment, because they were acquaintances. Ballard then raped and stabbed her before fleeing with cash from her purse.
Williams has said he was told he would face a capital murder charge — punishable by death — if he didn't confess. He said he caved because he wanted the 11-hour interrogation to be over.
"I just couldn't take it anymore," Williams said during an April 2015 hearing. "I couldn't take being called a liar, the pressure."
Tice and Dick have also said they were threatened with the death penalty. University of San Francisco law professor Richard A. Leo, an expert on false confessions, said at the April hearing that Dick came to believe he must have participated in the crime.
The detective who questioned the men, Robert Glenn Ford, was convicted in 2011 of extortion and lying to the FBI in unrelated cases. He is serving 12 ½ years in prison for taking tens of thousands of dollars from drug dealers in exchange for getting them favorable treatment at sentencing.