Four honorable men volunteered to fight for their country, but ended up fighting for their own freedom.
Hosts Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin, co-directors at Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and central figures in the smash hit Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer, tell us about not one, but four U.S. Navy sailors who falsely confessed to murdering another sailor’s wife.
Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good™ Podcasts in association with Signal Co No1
A portion of this podcast series’ proceeds will be donated to the Center on Wrongful Convictions. To donate, learn more, or get involved, go to http://www.centeronwrongfulconvictions.org/
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Laura Nirider Welcome to Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions. I'm Laura Nirider.
Steve Drizin And I'm Steve Drizin.
Laura Nirider Steve and I are lawyers. We fight to free people who've been wrongfully convicted and our specialty is false confessions. In Season One of this podcast, we shared 12 true stories of people who confessed to crimes they didn't commit. This season, we're back with more stories that show how injustice that starts in the interrogation room can spread across the entire criminal justice system. These are 12 more cases that keep us up at night. Today's case feels like a recurring nightmare. We'll tell you about not one, but four U.S. Navy sailors who falsely confessed to murdering another sailor's wife. They volunteered to fight for their country, but they ended up fighting for their own freedom.
Steve Drizin The Norfolk Four is an iconic case because it is one of the most colossal screwups in the history of American justice. I'd never thought this case would go to trial, but it did. And they were convicted and I was stunned.
Laura Nirider When you think about these guys from all across the United States who signed up to serve their country in the military and this is what they were handed, it's outrageous. I mean, Steve, you've had family members in the military.
Steve Drizin Yeah, my father served and he enlisted less than six months after his own brother was killed at Iwo Jima. I grew up every Memorial Day, we would gather by my uncle's graveside, and these men in uniform would fire rifles into the air. And I can still hear how loud they were to, like, a seven-year-old kid. The military was something that was respected in my household. You know, the military is built on honor.
Laura Nirider The truth is, every one of the Norfolk Four was there to serve his country and instead their reputations and their lives were dragged through the mud.
Steve Drizin It's like a war zone at the end of this case, with bodies strewn all over the place.
Laura Nirider But nobody won.
Steve Drizin That's right. Everybody was a casualty. It took 20 years to right this wrong completely. And it never should have happened in the first place.
Laura Nirider Today's story starts at the U.S. Naval Station in Norfolk, Virginia. It's the world's largest naval base, the headquarters of the Fleet Forces Command. And it all sits on a narrow peninsula separating the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. That's where the USS Simpson docks at Pier 5 on July 8, 1997, after six days at sea. Among the hundreds of sailors on board is Billy Bosko, a 19-year-old signalman. As his ship maneuvers into place, Billy is scanning the pier. He's hoping to find his 18-year-old bride, Michelle, waiting for him. Billy and Michelle, were high school sweethearts from Pittsburgh who'd been married for just three months. They'd met a few years earlier on the school bus when Billy's eye was caught by Michelle's red hair. He tried to impress her by saying, "Hey, toots. Nice jacket." But it was her quick response, "My name's Michelle," that impressed him. Pretty soon, they became inseparable. After graduating, Billy enlisted in the Navy. Michelle followed him to Norfolk, where they got married. But when Billy Ship docks that day, there is no Michelle waiting for him. He goes straight home to their tiny apartment off base. Michelle usually kept the place spotlessly clean. But today is horribly different. On the bedroom floor, Billy finds his wife dead, wearing nothing but a black T-shirt and surrounded by blood. She's been raped, stabbed, and strangled. Billy searches for the phone, but in his panic he can't find it. Instead, he runs next door to the apartment of another naval couple, Danial and Nicole Williams. Billy tells them his wife is dead, and Danial calls 911. The two men go back to the scene where they put a blanket over Michelle's legs. Police arrive just minutes later. There are no signs of forced entry, so police theorize that Michelle knew her attacker and had let him in. They ask Michelle's friends who might have done this. No one has any ideas. The police keep pressing, though. And one friend finally mentions the neighbor, Danial Williams. Danial was a 25-year-old sailor from Michigan who'd also just gotten married. But Danial and his wife Nicole had recently gotten some terrible news. They had thought Nicole was expecting, but she wasn't pregnant after all; instead, she was dying of ovarian cancer. Danial was grief-stricken, but the police had ideas of their own about how he was handling it. They developed a theory that Danial had become interested in Michelle. It's only been an hour and a half since Michelle's body was found, but police are somehow already convinced they've got their man. With no other leads, police asked Danial Williams to come down to the station. They tell him it's normal to question anyone who'd been involved in discovering a body. And Danial finds himself alone in an interrogation room, totally unprepared for what's about to happen.
Richard Leo This is the worst type of crime you can imagine; not only a murder, but a murder rape of a young woman. And these are the kinds of cases that really get the adrenaline of police departments up.
Laura Nirider That's our friend Richard Leo, one of the globe's leading experts on false confessions. He's also coauthored a book about the Norfolk Four.
Richard Leo It's entrenched in the police culture that when you interrogate, it's because your goal is to get a confession. We all think an innocent person wouldn't falsely confess, so it's a puzzle. Why would people do something that none of us think we would do?
Laura Nirider Some of you may remember our explanation of how false confessions happen from last season. If you're new to this podcast, you can check out our first episode where Steve and I take a deep dive into the interrogation room. Here's how it goes for Danial Williams. Police accuse him of raping and killing Michelle Bosko, and Danial says he had nothing to do with it. They ask him to take a polygraph, and he agrees; he wants to prove his innocence. But police lie to Danial. They tell him he failed the polygraph when he really passed it. They say the polygraph proves he's guilty.
Richard Leo Polygraphs, in any event, are highly unreliable. They're not scientific, but police pretend they are. You give a suspect polygraph; you tell them the results indicate that they're lying and that the machine is scientific and error free. So it's an effective interrogation technique in breaking down somebody's resistance and denials, because science has just proven beyond any doubt that they are guilty.
Laura Nirider Danial's scared as hell. It's dawning on him that the police will never believe he's innocent. They insist the Danial needs to admit he attacked Michelle. The interrogation goes on overnight for eight hours, but Danial won't say he did it. Now, none of the interrogation was taped, so we don't have a perfect record of what happened. But we do know that, by early morning, Danial still hadn't confessed, so police bring in a closer; an interrogator who knows how to get confessions. And according to Danial, that's when things get really rough.
Steve Drizin So the detective who was the primary instigator in this case was a man named Detective Ford. And Danial Williams was not equipped to deal with his high stress interrogation tactics.
Laura Nirider According to Danial, the detective suggests that he'd been attracted to Michelle. Maybe he couldn't have sex with his dying wife as much as he wanted to, ford says. Maybe Danial wanted an affair with Michelle and he went to her apartment to get it.
Steve Drizin Danial went from the joy of finding someone to spend the rest of his life with, to knowing that his wife was going to die a painful and miserable death in all likelihood. In the middle of that, he's accused of sexually assaulting and murdering his neighbor. Unbelievable.
Laura Nirider The interrogation only gets worse from there. Danial's told the evidence against him is rock solid. The death penalty is on the table, Ford tells him, unless he cooperates with police and confesses.
Steve Drizin Danial is essentially assaulted with threats of the death penalty, lies about the evidence against him; screaming, shouting, breaking him down, accusing him of being a liar. And after a long period of time, Danial agrees to a preconceived story that was fed to him by Detective Ford.
Laura Nirider That's when police finally turn on the tape recorder.
Danial Willaims I got her in the back room, and I forced her to the floor, and... I forced her to have intercourse with me. She resisted, and I hit her a couple times with my hand. I grabbed a flat, hard shoe, and I struck her with it once. And I got up and I left.
Laura Nirider Soon enough, though, police realized they've got a problem. While they're recording Danial's confession, the autopsy report comes back; and they learn Michelle hadn't been beaten with a shoe. She'd actually been stabbed. So now police have to see Danial a new story.
Interrogator So you stabbed her approximately three times; is that correct?
Danial Willaims That is correct.
Richard Leo People look at these confessions and say, well, jeez, you know, they described the crime scene, they describe the weapon. People don't know that when an innocent person is broken down and falsely confesses, the police fed them the crime facts; and the person, after many hours, repeated that back.
Laura Nirider By 7:00 the next morning, Danial Williams has become a confessed killer. He's arrested and calls his mom right away from jail to recant his confession. But it's too late. Danial is charged with capital murder, meaning the death penalty is on the table; and the Norfolk police closed the case. The case stayed closed for all of four months. That's when results came back from a DNA test on the semen found on Michelle's body. It was a single male profile that didn't belong to Danial Williams.
Steve Drizin Game over. This is the kind of evidence that exonerates defendants all of the time.
Laura Nirider Dan should have been on his way home.
Steve Drizin He and his wife should have been able to spend her remaining days together.
Laura Nirider His confession was false. The DNA proved it. But the police refused to let go of their belief in Danial's guilt. Instead, they developed a new theory: another man must have been there, too. And before long, they picked out a second suspect. Joe Dick was 21, a Navy sailor who rented a room from Danial and Nicole Williams. Joe had grown up in Baltimore with major intellectual disabilities that made him think more like a child. Joe was eager to please and very easy to intimidate. As a high schooler, he worked at his church mowing the lawn, until one day, when the mower clogged. Joe reached inside, and the blade cut off a couple of his fingers. After that, whenever his high school shop teachers told him to use machinery that he didn't understand, Joe would hide until classes over. Unfortunately, Joe couldn't hide from Detective Ford. Six months after Michelle's death, naval security turns Joe over for interrogation. Detective Ford accuses Joe of helping Danial kill Michelle Bosko. Now, Joe is really confused because he remembers being on his ship the night Michelle was killed. But again, Ford administers a polygraph and says Joe failed. Ford shows Joe a picture of Michelle lying dead on the floor and says he'll get the death penalty unless he admits helping Danial kill her. It's pretty clear there's only one story Ford will accept.
Richard Leo Innocent suspects come to see their situation as hopeless; that there's no way out other than to give the interrogator what they want. And the interrogator is offering them a way out by suggesting they can go home, or they'll mitigate their damage, or they can just put an end to the interrogation. Most people don't know police are trained in these manipulative techniques. And of course, if the police have the right person, that's a good thing as long as they follow the law. But sometimes they get the wrong person.
Laura Nirider Soon enough, Detective Ford turns on the recorder and Joe Dick confesses to helping Danial rape and murder Michelle Bosko. At least he does the best he can.
Interrogator Why did you two take it upon yourselves to rape and murder this woman?
Joe Dick Don't know.
Interrogator Can you describe the knife?
Joe Dick All I can say about the knife is it looked like a normal kitchen knife that you would use for meat or something.
Interrogator Sharp knife.
Joe Dick Yes.
Richard Leo Joe Dick is slow, and low-functioning, and highly suggestible. And these are personality traits that make somebody more vulnerable to making false confessions. And so it took less time to break Joe Dick than it took to break the others.
Steve Drizin Joe Dick was even less equipped to deal with the interrogation tactics of Detective Ford. He was a follower in the truest sense of the word, and Detective Ford took advantage of that.
Laura Nirider Based on his confession, Joe is charged with capital murder as Danial's codefendant. The police were sure that, this time, they'd closed the case. Then within weeks, Joe's DNA is compared to the semen from the crime scene. Turns out the DNA doesn't belong to him either. Neither Joe Dick nor Danial Williams could have been the attacker. But instead of looking outside their circle of suspects, police decide to expand it. They insist that Danial and Joe must still be guilty, but now they decide a third man must have been involved, too.
Steve Drizin When faced with compelling evidence of innocence, compelling evidence that your theory is wrong, you should be examining the theory, not trying to reinterpret facts to create a new theory which accommodates the DNA evidence. We see this over and over again. When prosecution start changing their theories in midstream, you have to be very concerned that an injustice is about to happen.
Laura Nirider By this point, two injustices had already happened, and more were still to come. Joe's lawyer told him that his best hope of escaping the electric chair would be if he identified one more perpetrator. Pretty soon, Joe came up with a third name, Eric Wilson. And on April 8, 1998, Eric became the next domino waiting to fall. Eric Wilson was a 21-year-old naval recruit from Texas. He was an Eagle Scout, the kind of guy who'd walk girls home from parties when their dates got too drunk. On April 8th, Detective Ford starts interrogating Eric Wilson. Once again, Ford administers a polygraph and tells Eric he flunked it. Just like with Joe, Ford slaps a picture of Michelle's dead body on the table and says he can prove Eric helped Danial and Joe commit the crime. It was all bullshit. Eric barely even knew Danial or Joe. But after hours in the interrogation room, Eric starts to doubt his own memory. Maybe he really was lying and didn't realize it.
Richard Leo People come to doubt themselves and their memories or beliefs in interrogations. It's a high pressure game of deception, manipulation, persuasion to get people who deny committing a crime to confess to committing it.
Laura Nirider Eventually, Eric agrees to the cop story. Detective Ford turns on the recorder, and Eric repeats what he's been told; that he, Joe, and Danial raped Michelle. But he says he left before the stabbing started.
Eric Wilson I grabbed Michelle by either the shoulders or the upper arm. I can't remember exactly. I didn't know what to do. I was real confused. Well, Dan ended up raping her and... I believe I went in next and I started.
Laura Nirider And soon enough, Eric Wilson is charged as capital defendant number three.
Richard Leo He said that the interrogation was so coercive that he would have said anything. If they had told him that he needed to confess to the killing of John F. Kennedy, he would have said he handed Oswald the gun. He would have said anything just to get out of there at the end of many, many hours that broke him down.
Laura Nirider But again, weeks passed; the DNA is tested. And yet again, it's not a match. By mid-June, police are looking for a fourth man.
Steve Drizin Zero for three. This is bad enough for Joe Dick and Dan Williams and Eric Wilson. Imagine what it's like for Billy Bosko. The worst possible nightmare you can imagine. But it only gets worse because police keep telling him it's not just one person that raped and killed your wife, it's two, and then three. She's being violated over and over again. He has to relive the trauma every time the police bring in somebody else to this story. And it's all a lie.
Laura Nirider To find their fourth man, police go back to Joe Dick. After a lot more questioning, Joe offers another name: George Clark. Now, police have no idea who "George Clark" might be, or if this person even exists. So they bring Joe an old Navy yearbook. Joe flips through it and points to a picture of a former sailor named Derek Tice. "Yeah," Joe says, "that looks like him." Derek Tice was born in North Carolina, a Southerner who called his elders, "sir" and "ma'am." Derek was really smart, but he had a learning disability and never did well in school. He scraped through graduation and enlisted in the Navy to get trained as a paramedic. But now it's Derek Tice's turn to be questioned by Detective Ford. When Derek says he knows nothing about Michelle Bosko's murder, Ford falsely tells Derek that physical evidence had already proven him guilty.
Richard Leo Police routinely pretend to have evidence they don't have, state that there is evidence that doesn't exist. That's an acceptable technique in American policing, in the American legal system, unlike in other legal systems.
Laura Nirider Ford follows the same playbook that he used on the other three. He administers a polygraph and tells Derek he failed it. Again, Ford threatens Derek with the death penalty unless he confesses. After nearly 12 hours of this, Derek agrees to confess, just like the others. On tape, he repeats the story that Ford tells him; that he committed the rape and murder along with Danial, Joe, and Eric. This story is enough for Derek to become the fourth man charged with the attack on Michelle Bosko.
Interrogator Why did you all agree to go with him?
Derek Tice I agreed because of peer pressure. I can't say why the others did, I believe it is for the same reason.
Laura Nirider You can probably guess what I'm about to tell you next. The DNA is tested, yet again, and it doesn't belong to Derek either.
Steve Drizin This is false confession number four. Laura, I know you don't know much about baseball-
Laura Nirider Yeah, but I do know that no one gets a fourth strike.
Steve Drizin You don't get a fourth strike in baseball, and you don't get a fourth strike in law enforcement. It's time to call this game. It's time to end the charade.
Laura Nirider All four sailors have been proven innocent by DNA, but prosecutors ignore the evidence and move forward with cases against all of them. Danial Williams, Joe Dick, Eric Wilson, and Derek Tice become known as the Norfolk Four. As prosecutors got ready to try the Norfolk Four, the case took a serious twist. On February 22, 1999, a prison inmate named Omar Ballard sent a letter to his friend. In it, Ballard mentioned Michelle Bosko's murder and wrote, "Guess who did that? Me." Omar Ballard was in prison for raping a 14-year-old girl and for beating up one of Michelle Bosko's female neighbors a few weeks before Michelle died. In fact, right after he'd committed the assault, Ballard had been chased through the apartment complex by an angry crowd eager to exact revenge. To protect him from the mob, Michelle let Ballard hide in her and Billy's apartment until things calmed down. Two weeks later, Michelle was killed in that same apartment by someone she knew. Police brought Ballard in from prison for questioning. This time, it didn't take a polygraph to get a confession. Ballard admitted to raping and stabbing Michelle Bosko, and he insisted that he acted alone. Most importantly, police finally had their DNA match. The semen at the crime scene belonged to Omar Ballard.
Omar Ballard I don't know, I guess something just ticked in my head and I went to the kitchen, got a knife, went back to the room. She was getting up off the bed, or she was already up off the bed, when I stabbed her in the chest one time. Then when she got on the floor, think I stabbed about two or three more times. I'm not quite sure.
Interrogator Was anybody with you during this offense?
Omar Ballard No.
Steve Drizin Police officers were handed the true perpetrator on a silver platter. The wake-up call was hand delivered to them. Literally, Omar Ballard confessed to this crime and then DNA matched him before trial. Walk away!
Laura Nirider But prosecutors wouldn't walk away. Instead, they offered Joe Dick a plea deal. If he testified that everyone else had been there along with Ballard, for Joe, the death penalty would be off the table. It worked. Joe Dick pled guilty and agreed to testify against the others, as he'd been told. In short order, Derek Tice was convicted of murder, and Eric Wilson was convicted of rape. As for Danial Williams, he'd pled guilty to both rape and murder, only a few weeks before Ballard's letter turned up. Danial, Joe, and Derek all received life in prison. Eric Wilson was sentenced to eight and a half years for rape.
Richard Leo There was just something almost Twilight Zone-like about this case. You had four people in prison for a rape and murder, the DNA evidence did not link to any of them, and it linked to somebody else who had a history of violent crime and rape; and he admitted that he did it.
Laura Nirider At his own trial in 2000, Omar Ballard pled guilty to killing Michelle Bosko. But the prosecution also made a deal with him. In exchange for a sentence of life rather than death, Ballard told the court that the Norfolk Four had participated in the attack. It was the only time he implicated any of them. Back in prison, Ballard returned to his original story. Over and over, he insisted that he was the sole perpetrator. That was enough for several large law firms to start reinvestigating the Norfolk Four's convictions. In September 2005, Eric Wilson was paroled after serving his full sentence. And in 2009, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine granted a conditional pardon to Derek, Danial, and Joe, based on the weakness of the case against them. So all of the Norfolk Four were out of prison, but they were still living as convicted murderers and sex offenders. They still had to win exoneration. Derek Tice was the first to be granted a new trial. In 2009, his lawyers found evidence that he had tried to ask for a lawyer during questioning, but he wasn't given one, in violation of his Miranda rights. Before Derek could be retried, two more bombshells dropped. First, a PBS Frontline episode about the Norfolk Four aired in 2010, featuring none other than Omar Ballard. During an interview from behind bars, Ballard insisted he had acted alone. The second bombshell had to do with Detective Ford. In 2010, a federal jury convicted Ford of extortion. He'd gotten criminal defendants to pay him to say they deserved shorter sentences because they'd given valuable information. Ford was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison. That was enough to convince prosecutors not to retry Derek Tice. And he became the first of the Norfolk Four to win exoneration. In 2016, a federal court held a hearing to determine whether Danial Williams and Joe Dick were innocent, too. At that hearing, Joe's commanding officer testified that Joe had been on duty the night of Michelle Bosko's death and couldn't have killed her. It was testimony that never came out before because Joe had been persuaded to plead guilty. In light of this evidence and everything else that didn't make sense, the judge granted Danial and Joe new trials, too. "By any measure," the judge wrote, "the evidence shows their innocence. No sane human being could find them guilty." The prosecution took the hint. On December 15, 2016, they decided not to retry Danial or Joe, either. The only one left was Eric Wilson. Eric's turn came just a few months later. On March 21, 2017, Governor Terry McAuliffe granted absolute pardons to each of the four men, removing all doubt. Finally, after 20 years of hell, the Norfolk Four were exonerated.
Richard Leo Counterintuitively, the Norfolk Four are lucky. They spent many years in prison based on false confessions to crimes they didn't commit, but there was DNA in their case and they got out. These are all earnest, honest, down-to-earth individuals who served their country well, whose wrongful convictions took the best years of their lives for almost two decades before they were exonerated.
Laura Nirider The Norfolk Four survived a battle they should never have had to fight. And now they're rebuilding their lives.
Danial Willaims Hello.
Laura Nirider Dan, this is Laura and Steve. How are you?
Steve Drizin It's so nice to finally get a chance to talk to you, Dan.
Danial Willaims Thank you.
Laura Nirider Are you living in Michigan, or are you living in Virginia?
Danial Willaims I'm currently living in Michigan now.
Laura Nirider And what keeps you busy these days?
Danial Willaims After my incarceration, after I got home, I went to Baker College of Owosso and got my associate's degree in applied science for welding.
Steve Drizin Wonderful. Have you been able to stay working?
Danial Willaims I have not stopped working yet.
Steve Drizin That is phenomenal.
Laura Nirider Let's see, you're a Michigan guy. Are you born and raised in Michigan?
Danial Willaims Yes.
Laura Nirider OK. What kind of fishing you like to do? What do you go fishing for?
Danial Willaims Usually panfish and bass.
Laura Nirider Yep, lakes or streams?
Danial Willaims Usually lakes.
Laura Nirider Do you ever cook the fish you catch, Dan?
Danial Willaims All the time. Cooking is something that I do enjoy also. Since getting out, I have been cooking at our local VFW, in Owosso, Sunday breakfast.
Laura Nirider Pancake breakfast, that kind of thing?
Danial Willaims Everything.
Laura Nirider Yeah.
Danial Willaims Pancakes, French toast, eggs to order, omelets, a breakfast burrito.
Steve Drizin You're a grill man.
Danial Willaims Yes.
Laura Nirider And you're at the VFW, so you're there with other guys who were in the service.
Danial Willaims Yes.
Laura Nirider It's nice to be with guys with the same experience.
Danial Willaims I usually just live life one day at a time right now. And, staying positive.
Laura Nirider One day at a time is pretty good, these days; sounds like to me.
Steve Drizin The idea that it took so long to right these wrongs is just hard to fathom. You know, we claim we care about those in the military. We care about our vets. And what was done to these men is just beyond the pale.
Laura Nirider Too often, it's a fight to exonerate even people who are obviously innocent. But it's a fight that's got to be won. That's our life's work: freeing false confessors and sharing their stories with you. For Dan, Joe, Eric, and Derek, that's the least we can do. Thank you for serving our country, and for letting your stories serve in the fight against wrongful convictions. That's the story of the Norfolk Four. Join us next week when we'll tell you about Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, two brothers who were wrongfully convicted of the same murder. Their convictions were held up by a Supreme Court justice as perfect examples of why we have the death penalty. But the case was built on false confessions. Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good Podcasts, in association with Signal Co. No1. Special thanks to our executive producers, Jason Flom and Kevin Wortis. Our production team is headed by senior producer Anne Pope, along with producers Jaji Hammer and Jess Shane. Our show is mixed by Jeannie Montalvo. John Colbert is our intrepid intern. Our music was composed by J. Ralph. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter @LauraNirider.
Steve Drizin And you can follow me on Twitter @SDrizin.