After spending more than 11 harsh years in prison for a crime they did not commit, Joseph J. Dick, Jr., Derek E. Tice, and Danial J. Williams, became free men in early August thanks in large part to the legal work of two members of MAIP’s Board of Directors.
On August 6, 2009, Governor Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia granted conditional pardons to the Navy veterans known as the “Norfolk Four” but fell short of granting them absolute pardons based on innocence. Gov. Kaine denied the clemency request of Eric C. Wilson, the fourth member of the group, who was released in 2005 after serving 8 ½ years in prison.Just over a month later, Tice received even more complete relief when a federal judge granted his petition for habeas corpus, setting the stage for his conviction to be officially vacated."
While we are glad that Joe, Derek and Danial will finally be coming home to their families," said Tice’s attorney Desmond Hogan, "we are gravely disappointed that Governor Kaine has disregarded the overwhelming evidence of innocence, which proves only one man was responsible for this tragic crime."
Teams of lawyers at three national law firms have been representing Williams, Tice and Dick, who were serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole, on a pro bono basis for the past five years. The law firm teams were led by two MAIP Board Members, Donald Salzman of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and Hogan of Hogan & Hartson, representing Williams and Tice, respectively and by George Kendall, who at the time was working at Holland & Knight on behalf of Dick.
On September 14, US District Judge Richard Williams vacated Tice’s conviction on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. In his ruling, Judge Williams agreed with Tice’s attorneys that if Tice’s trial attorney had moved to suppress his confession, which the court found was obtained despite Tice’s invocation of his right to silence, “there is a reasonable probability that Tice would not have been convicted," and “the prosecution’s case against Tice [is] awash in doubt, Williams wrote. Under the term of the conditional pardon, the convictions still stand for Williams and Dick.
The four Navy men were wrongfully convicted based on false confessions extracted after they were subjected to high-pressure interrogation tactics, including threats of the death penalty and questionable use of lie detector tests. The details in the men’s 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 the Norfolk Four case pointed to one man, Omar Ballard, and only his confession matched the physical evidence. Ballard is now serving a life sentence for the crime and has sworn under oath that he committed the crime by himself.
With Tice, Dick and Williams on their way home, their families took immediate steps to help them reintegrate into their communities. The men have been meeting with social workers and job counselors to help them make the adjustment, but they have a tough road ahead of them because convictions remain on their record for a crime they did not commit.
"Though we are overjoyed to finally have our sons back, we are saddened that Governor Kaine failed to recognize their actual innocence," said Larry Tice. "Our sons lost more than a decade of their lives. We must make sure that a tragedy like this one never strikes another family.”
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 in their entirety and training for police officers on proper interrogation tactics.
“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,” said MAIP Executive Director Shawn Armbrust. “We must work to ensure that no other innocent people suffer as the Norfolk Four did.”