Four innocent men, one dead woman and a bad cop.
The New York Times Magazine has an incredible story and a frightening one. Many people, perhaps most, have no idea how easy it is to convict an innocent man of murder. Not just to convict but to get him to confess to it, especially in death penalty states.
Anyone who has investigated how police botch up murder investigations and coerce suspects will know this is possible. Not only is it possible but I would say it is inevitable. Certainly not in every case but in many of them.
Let us start with the basics in this case. In 1997 Michelle Moore-Bosko was raped and murdered. Her husband, a Navy enlistee, returned to their apartment to find her body. He ran across the hall to a neighbor pleading with him to call the police. The neighbor, Daniel Williams, did as requested. Williams, also a Navy recruit, and his wife, shared an apartment with another sailor, Joseph Dick, Jr.
Police detective Robert Ford suspected that Williams was the perpetrator because a female friend of the victim said that Williams had been looking at her. Ford grilled and threatened Williams. And he used the tactics of brainwashing and coercion. He also made it clear to him that he would be convicted and that he would be executed unless he confessed. If he confessed the death penalty was off the table. Confess or die. Williams was told he was seen going into the apartment, that was a lie. Williams had willingly taken a polygraph test and the results said he was telling the truth. But Ford lied to Williams and told him he had failed the test.
Williams said he started to believe the accusations himself. It is also known that some individuals can be easily convinced to confess to anything.
Dr. Richard Ofshe is one of the world’s leading experts on false confessions and the ease with which they can be obtained. He has a full report on this incident here.
The police did not look for DNA evidence on Williams, or in his apartment, or at least there is no record of them doing so. Detective Ford was convinced he had the right man. Then DNA recovered on the dead woman’s body threw a monkey wrench into the neat little scenario that Ford had invented for himself. It didn’t match Williams. A rational man would conclude that contradictory evidence to his thesis has to be explored. Ford, instead, concluded it proved that Williams was not alone. Now his attention turned to Joe Dick, who shared the Williams’ apartment. He must be the "second" suspect.
Dick told Ford he was on duty aboard the U.S.S. Saipan when the crime had been committed. He couldn’t have been involved. Dick’s supervisor, Michael Ziegler, confirms that. Ziegler also double checked ship records which showed that Dick was aboard. And he said that the ship had very rigorous security measures and that Dick couldn’t leave without it being noted and Ziegler being informed. The alibi was never checked out. Dicks’ lawyer, who seems to have done a piss-poor job, claims the Navy had records that Dick was not on board and that the prosecutor confirmed this. But the prosecutor, Damian Hansen, says he never checked out the alibi and that he assumed the lawyer had done so. He hadn’t. Detective Ford did not investigate the alibi either. But he did lied to Dick and claimed that he had checked into it and that the alibi didn’t hold up.
Ford continued working on Dick, who Ziegler says, is mentally slow. When Dick started confessing Ford was pleased. Except for one problem: the two confessions were very different. Williams had confessed, after his interrogation, that he, and he alone, killed the woman. He said he did it between 9 pm and 11 pm. But the victim was not home during those hours. She was out with a friend from around noon to 11:30 pm. Williams remembered beating the woman in the face. But there was no sign of a beating. He was asked if he choked her and he said no. But the autopsy showed she had been chocked and stabbed. He thought the murder took place in the living room, it took place in the bedroom. Williams didn’t have any memory that corresponded with the facts. When these contradictions were presented to Williams his memories changed again to correspond with what he was told.
However, Dick was confessing to a different crime. He says he and Williams were arguing and that Moore-Bosko grabbed a kitchen knife and attacked him. He then stabbed her in response. But he had no recollection of what the knife looked like. He claimed he had ejaculated in the woman’s mouth but no semen was found there. He said that he threw a blanket over the woman after she died. And a blanket was found over her body but the husband says he did that when he came home and found her. Dick only “remembered” the blanket after he saw police photos of the crime scene. He didn’t know the blanket was added by the husband.
So, now Ford had two suspects, both of whom had confessed. And he had DNA evidence from the victim. Except the DNA didn’t belong to either of the suspects. Instead of questioning his theory Ford concluded that this meant there was a third suspect. So he goes after the mentally-slow Dick again. Now Dick remembers that there was third man there; his confession changes again. The third man, Eric Wilson, he said washed the blood from the knife. And they had moved the body from the bedroom, where it was found, to the living room, but then they were startled by a noise and moved it back. There was no indication the body had ever left the bedroom -- no blood residues or traces outside the bedroom. Dick said the murder took place between 7:00 and 8:00 but the victim didn’t return home that evening until 11:30. And that is before Williams said it took place.
And the knife was supposedly washed in the Williams apartment by a new suspect. Yet it was found in the victim’s apartment. Nothing fit but Ford ignored it all. He knew what he knew and wasn’t going to let something like evidence convince him otherwise.
Wilson was arrested and went through hours of similar police interrogation tactics. He started confessing but says this was because he was beaten and threatened by Ford. Yet again the DNA didn’t match. So, once again Ford concludes that this means there was a fourth suspect. And he returns to Dick who complies with a new confession. Dick said the man who helped in the murder was named George but he couldn’t remember more. He was shown photos of local sailors and picked out “George” from the photos.
The fourth suspect was not named George but was Dereck Tice. Ford arrested him and spent 14 hours interrogating him. Again Ford told Tice that he would get the death penalty unless he confessed. Tice requested an attorney and Ford refused! Tice said that some information he used in his “confession” had to be supplied to him by Ford and what wasn’t supplied didn’t fit the crime. Tice said the men used a claw hammer to pry open the apartment door of the victim. The door showed no signs of it. And he remember there being seven attackers not the four who were now the target of Ford’s “investigation”. Ford conveniently didn’t record any of the interrogations.
So, now three more men were arrested. And still none of the seven “suspects” matched the DNA evidence that was found! Astoundingly Ford continues with his case against these men. Williams and Dick had confessed to the crime and never stood trial. But their testimony was sufficient to convict Tice and Wilson who were arguing they were intimidated and coerced into false confessions. But it was too late for them to retract.
Then the Innocence Project got involved in the case (they are good people!). And they brought in a DNA expert. Under the police theory there were now seven men supposedly involved in the attack. All seven men took turns raping the victim. And supposedly they each took turns stabbing her. There were three knife wounds and one attempted wound on the victim. If all seven men stabbed her why were there only four wounds? And one forensics expert noted the stab wounds were all close together. He says that indicated a single attacker stabbing the victim in rapid succession. Seven different men taking turns wouldn't stab so closely together. In addition no DNA from any of the men was found on the victim or in the room.
Supposedly this gang of men attacked the victim in her apartment yet the apartment was immaculate. There was no sign of a gang rape or of seven men having burst in to violently attack the woman. And the new three suspects were not cooperating and not confessing. Two had evidence supporting alibis for the night of the crime. Charges were dropped against these three men but the Detective Ford insists they were guilty in spite of air tight alibis to the contrary.
And the Times notes that innocent people confess to crimes all the time, something the prosecutor told the jury doesn’t happen.
That is certainly the conventional wisdom. But consider, for example, the case of Billy Gene Davis, who, after twice failing a polygraph test, confessed to killing his girlfriend in Austin, Tex., in 1990. She later turned up alive in Tucson. According to the Innocence Project, 49 people whose convictions relied on false confessions have been proved innocent and released from prison based on DNA evidence. Last September, Jeffrey Deskovic — who, now 32, spent half his life in a New York prison for raping and killing a classmate in 1989 — was freed after DNA found on the victim was matched to an incarcerated murderer. Deskovic, like many false confessors, said he believed his life was in danger and that his interrogation wouldn’t stop unless he told the police what they wanted to hear. In Virginia, Earl Washington Jr., a mentally retarded man, spent 17 years in prison after falsely confessing to the rape and murder of a 19-year-old mother of three. He was pardoned after DNA established his innocence.Remember that in this case there is still no DNA match. None of the four imprisoned men, or the three other alleged suspects, matched the actual DNA evidence that was found. And that fact didn’t seem to impact on Ford’s mind. He had coerced confessions out of four innocent men. (This ought to tell you something about the usefulness of “enhanced interrogation” tactics to get accurate information from “enemy combatants”. That's Bushspeak for torture.)
Now things come full circle. Police were approached by a woman, Karen Stover, who gave them a threatening letter she received from one Omar Abdul Ballard, who was then in prison. In that letter he also says he was the one who killed Moore-Bosko. Also, the woman who was with Moore-Bosko the day of the murder was Tamika Taylor. She was allegedly the one who suggested police investigate Williams. It turns out she was friends with Ballard. And she had introduced him to the victim. In addition Ballard has a history of violence against women including rape and attempted murder.
One of those attacks took place just down the street from where this murder had taken place. Ballard had been identified in that attack. In fact, he had fled to the Bosko apartment for refuge when some men intervened and went after him for attacking the woman. Two weeks after that incident he was arrested for raping another woman. Police already knew he was wanted for violent attacks on women in that very neighborhood and never put two and two together. Instead they followed they fanciful theory of the expanding gang of men.
Finally the police compared Ballard to the DNA evidence. It was a match. He also freely confessed to the crime and accurately described the knife that he used. He told police when the crime had happened and it matched the events, unlike the other “confessions”. And he told police he committed the crime by himself. So the innocent men walked? Not on your life.
Police now concocted a new theory. They pretended that Ballard was protecting the other seven men who were also allegedly involved. They reasoned that Ballard was protecting them because he didn’t want to be labeled a snitch in prison. They also figured that since Ballard was black, and the others were white, that Ballard didn't want his friends knowing he was hanging around with whites. And supposedly the other men, four of whom were happy to point fingers at others, didn’t mention Ballard because they were afraid of him.
It gets worse. Detective Ford then threatened Ballard telling him he would face the death penalty unless he signed a new confession which implicated the men that Ford had already arrested. Ballard, who had never met any of the seven other alleged killers, said he did just that. After he signed the confession the police needed, the death penalty was taken off the table in his case. Four innocent men were threatened with death unless they confessed. And the one guilty man is offered his life if he lies for the police.
For Ballard the choice was to sign a false confession or face the death penalty. (This is one major reason the death penalty is a pernicious force in the justice system. It can be used to intimidate and force false confessions and accusations.)
Over and over Detective Ford used the death penalty as a means of forcing people to sign false statements. When Joe Dick was willing to admit that he falsely accused Tice and Wilson, it was Ford who stopped him. Ford told Dick that any change in his testimony would result in the death penalty and Dick says he was trying to save his own life. He had no choice.
Read the story in the New York Times Magazine. It is a fascinating account of a blatant miscarriage of justice. You will also find reams of information on this case here. You can also contact Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine, who has been petitioned to grant clemency in this case, by email here.