Editor's Note: Accuracy is not guaranteed; you can help us get better by highlighting mistakes and suggesting edits! Please fill out this survey if you wish to learn more about us and our mission or send me an email.
Welcome to wrongful conviction, false confessions. I'm Laura Nightrider. And I'm Steve Dreazen. 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 confess 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. Hey, guys, it's Laura. You know, we create these podcasts to educate as well as to inspire action. And when I checked out a few of our Apple podcast reviews recently, I was so thrilled to learn about what our incredible listeners are doing.
One of you wrote, After listening to wrongful conviction, I've decided to get my associate's degree in paralegal studies. I start school in January at almost 46 years old. Another listener wrote, I have a bachelor's in criminal justice and a master's in forensic psychology. Your podcast has been so inspirational that I've applied to volunteer for organizations that fight wrongful convictions. I can't say it enough. You guys are fueling our shared work to reform the legal system, join our growing community.
And remember, no action is too small. Keep telling your stories in our Apple reviews. We'll keep reading them and fighting for justice right along with you. This episode is sponsored by AIG, a leading global insurance company, and Paul Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, a leading international law firm, the AIG pro bono program provides free legal services and other support to many non-profit organizations and individuals most in need, and recently announced that working to reform the criminal justice system will become a key pillar of the program's mission.
Paul Weiss has long had an unwavering commitment to providing impactful, pro bono legal assistance to the most vulnerable members of our society and in support of the public interest, including extensive work in the criminal justice area. The Norfolk four is an iconic case because it is one of the most colossal screw ups in the history of American justice. I never thought this case would go to trial, but it did. And they were convicted. And I was stunned. 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.
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 were gathered by my uncle's gravesite, 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.
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.
It's like a war zone at the end of this case with bodies strewn all over the place.
But nobody won. That's right. Everybody was a casualty. It took 20 years to write this wrong completely. And it never should have happened in the first place.
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 five on July 8th, 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. Billion, Michelle, were high school sweethearts from Pittsburgh who'd been married for just three months. They met a few years earlier on the school bus when Billy's I was cut 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's ship docks that day, there's 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, Daniel and Nicole Williams. Billy tells them his wife is dead and Daniel calls 911. When 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, Danielle Williams.
Danielle was a 25 year old sailor from Michigan who'd also just gotten married. But Daniel 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. Daniel was grief stricken, but the police had ideas of their own about how he was handling it. They developed a theory that Daniel 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 Daniel Williams to come down to the station. They tell him it's normal to question anyone who had been involved in discovering a body. And Daniel finds himself alone in an interrogation room, totally unprepared for what's about to happen.
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.
That's our friend Richard Leo, one of the globe's leading experts on false confessions. He's also co-authored a book about the Norfolk four.
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?
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 Daniel Williams. Police accuse him of raping and killing Michelle Bosco, and Daniel 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 Daniel.
They tell him he failed the polygraph when he really passed it.
They say the polygraph proves he's guilty.
Polygraphs, in any event, are highly unreliable. They're not scientific. What 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.
Daniel, scared as hell. It's dawning on him that the police will never believe he's innocent. They insist that Daniel needs to admit he attacked Michelle. The interrogation goes on overnight for eight hours, but Daniel 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, Daniel still hadn't confessed. So police bring in a closer an interrogator who knows how to get confessions.
And according to Daniel, that's when things get really rough.
So the detective who was the primary instigator in this case was a man named Detective Ford. And Daniel Williams was not equipped to deal with his high stress interrogation tactics.
According to Daniel, 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 Daniel wanted an affair with Michelle and he went to her apartment to get it.
Daniel 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.
The interrogation only gets worse from there. Daniels told the evidence against him is rock solid. The death penalty is on the table for it tells him unless he cooperates with police and confesses Daniels 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, Daniel agrees to a preconceived story that was fed to him by Detective Ford. That's when police finally turn on the tape recorder. I got her in the back room and I forced her to the floor and. And for us to ever have intercourse with me, she resisted and I hit her a couple of times my hand and grabbed her too, and I struck her with her once and I got up.
Soon enough, though, police realized they've got a problem. While they're recording Daniel's confession, the autopsy report comes back and they learned Michelle hadn't been beaten with a shoe. She'd actually been stabbed.
So now police have to feed Daniel, a news story that you stabbed her possibly three times the break that is occurred. People look at these confessions and say, well, jeez, you know, they describe the crime scene, they describe the weapon, people don't know that when an innocent person is broken down and falsely confesses to police, fed them the crime facts.
And the person after many hours repeated that back by 7:00 the next morning, Daniel 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. Daniel 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 the 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 Danielle Williams game over.
This is the kind of evidence that exonerates defendants all of the time.
10 should have been on his way home. He and his wife should have been able to spend her remaining days together. His confession was false.
The DNA proved it, but the police refused to let go of their belief in Daniel'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 Daniel 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 clocked, Joe reached inside and the blade cut off a couple of his fingers. After that, whenever his high school shop teacher has told him to use machinery that he didn't understand, Joe would hide until class was over. Unfortunately, Joe couldn't hide from Detective Ford six months after Michele's death, naval security turns Joe over for interrogation. Detective Ford accuses Joe of helping Daniel kill Michelle Bosco.
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. Shozo, a picture of Michelle lying dead on the floor and says he'll get the death penalty unless he admits helping Daniel kill her. It's pretty clear there's only one story Ford will accept.
Innocent suspects come to see their situation is 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 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 soon enough.
Detective Ford turns on the recorder and Joe Dick confesses to helping Daniel rape and murder Michelle Bosco. At least he does the best he can.
Why did you two take it upon yourself to rape and murder this woman? Can you describe the night? I can say about the knife is look like a normal kitchen knife that you would use for a maid or something sharp, right? Yes. Joe Dick is slow and 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.
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 based on his confession.
Joe is charged with capital murder as Daniel's codefendants. 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 Daniel Williams could have been the attacker. But instead of looking outside their circle of suspects, police decide to expand it. They insist that Daniel and Joe must still be guilty. But now they decide a third man must have been involved, too.
You know, 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 prosecutions start changing their theories in midstream.
You have to be very concerned that an injustice is about to happen by this point to 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 8th, 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 Daniel and Joe commit the crime. It was all bullshit. Eric barely even knew Daniel 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.
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.
Eventually, Eric agrees to the cop's story. Detective Ford turns on the recorder and Eric repeats what he's been told that he, Joe and Daniel raped Michelle.
But he says he left before the stabbing started. 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, and soon enough, Eric Wilson is charged as capital defendant number three.
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.
But again, weeks pass, the DNA is tested. And yet again, it's not a match by mid-June. Police are looking for a fourth man, oh, for three.
This is bad enough for Joe Dick and Dan Williams and Eric Wilson. Imagine what it's like for Billy Boscoe, 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 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 Bosco's murder, Ford falsely tells Derek that physical evidence had already proven him guilty.
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.
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 Daniel, Joe and Eric.
This story is enough for Derek to become the fourth man charged with the attack on Michelle Bosco.
Why did you agree to go with. I agree because of peer pressure. I can't say what the others did. I believe that it was for the same reason. 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.
This is false confession number four. Lorette, I know you don't know much about baseball.
Yeah, but I do know that no one gets a fourth strike. 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 this charade.
All four sailors have been proven innocent by DNA, but prosecutors ignore the evidence and move forward with cases against all of them. Daniel Williams, Joe Dick Eric Wilson and Derek Tice become known as the Norfolk for. As prosecutors got ready to try the Norfolk for the case took a serious twist on February 22nd, 1999, a prison inmate named Omar Ballard sent a letter to his friend. In it, Ballard mentioned Michelle Bosco's murder and wrote, Guess who did that, MI?
Omar Ballard was in prison for raping a 14 year old girl and for beating up one of Michele Bosco'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 Billies 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 Bosco, 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.
No, no guess on the tip of my head and I went to the kitchen and I went back to the room. She was getting up the bed. She was already above the bed when I stabbed in the chest one time in Michigan for about two or three more times. I'm not quite sure. Was anybody working during this offense? No. 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, 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 Daniel Williams, he'd pled guilty to both rape and murder only a few weeks before Ballard's letter turned up. Daniel, Joe and Derek all received life in prison. Eric Wilson was sentenced to eight and a half years for rape.
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 at his own trial in 2000, Omar Ballard pled guilty to killing Michelle Bosco, 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 for his 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, Daniel 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 twice.
And he became the first of the Norfolk four to win exoneration.
In 2016, a federal court held a hearing to determine whether Daniel 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 Bosco'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 Daniel Anjo 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 hit on December 15th, 2016. They decided not to retry Daniel or Joe either. The only one left was Eric Wilson. Eric's turn came just a few months later. On March 21st, 2017, Gov.
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. 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.
The Norfolk four survived a battle they should never have had to fight, and now they're rebuilding their lives. Hello, Dan, this is Laura and Steve, how are you? It's so nice to finally get a chance to talk to you, Dad. Thank you. Are you living in Michigan or are you living in Virginia? I'm currently living in Michigan now. And what keeps you busy these days? After my incarceration, after I got home, I went to Baker College of Law School and got my associates degree in Applied Science for welding.
Wonderful. Have you been able to stay working? I have not stopped working yet. That is phenomenal. Let's hear. Michigan guy, are you born and raised in Michigan? Yes. OK, what kind of fishing you like to do when you go fishing for you and fish and bass lakes or streams. Easy lakes. Do you ever cook the fish? You catch them all the time. Cooking is something that I do enjoy. Also, since getting out, I have been cooking at our local VFW and also Sunday breakfast, pancake breakfast, that kind of thing.
Everything. Yeah, pancakes, French toast, eggs to order omelets, breakfast burrito. Your grill, man. Yes. And here at the VFW. So you're there with other guys who are in the service. Yes. It's nice to be with guys with that same experience. I usually just live life one day at a time right now and stay positive one day at a time is pretty good these days, it sounds like to me. 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.
Too often it's a fight to exonerate even people who are obviously innocent. But it's a fight that's got to be one that's our life's work, freeing false confessors and sharing their stories with you for Dan, Joe, Eric and Eric. That's the least we can do. Thank you for serving our country and for letting your story 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 Podcast's in association with Signal Company No. One special thanks to our executive producers Jason Pflum and Kevin Autists. Our production team is headed by senior producer and pope, along with producers Josh Hammer and Jess Shane. Our show is mixed by Jeanie Montalvo. John Colbert is our intrepid intern. Our music was composed by Jay Ralfe. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter at Laura Nightrider and you can follow me on Twitter at S Dreazen.
For more information on the show, visit wrongful conviction podcast NORCOM. Be sure to follow the show on Instagram at wrongful conviction on Facebook, at Wrongful Conviction Podcast and on Twitter at Wrong Conviction. Check out True Crime Week on Stitcher, where they've kicked off a week highlighting some of the best true crime podcast, listen to Wrongful Conviction podcast and other true crime podcast like Dr. Death, my favorite murder, true crime garage and more all for free on Stitcher. Also, check out their curated home page to find your next true crime pod obsession.
If you're on your phone, you can download Stitcher in your app store or go to Stitcher Dotcom slash true crime to learn more from your ex.