On November 10 in Richmond, Virginia, thirty former FBI agents held a press conference calling for the pardon of four sailors, known as the Norfolk Four, who were convicted of rape and murder. Their convictions were based mainly on their own confessions, which were apparently made out of fear that they might otherwise receive the death penalty. The FBI agents pointed out that DNA and forensic evidence now points to a prison inmate who has confessed as the sole perpetrator of the crimes. They asked Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to pardon the men. “After careful review of the evidence we have arrived at one unequivocal conclusion: The Norfolk Four are innocent,” said Jay Cochran, a former assistant director of the F.B.I. and former special agent who served at the bureau for 27 years. “We believe a tragic mistake has occurred in the case of these four Navy men, and we are calling on Governor Kaine to grant them immediate pardons.”

“We are not bleeding hearts, and we don’t take this type of public action lightly,” said Cochran. “However, we also believe that law enforcement has an obligation to protect the most innocent from wrongful conviction.” The agents joined a long list of notable people calling for a pardon, including 4 former Virginia attorneys general, 12 former state and federal judges and prosecutors, and a past president of the Virginia Bar Association.

The confessions were obtained from the sailors after they were threatened with the death penalty if they did not cooperate. Although all four quickly recanted, defense attorney George Kendall said the police elicited the first false confession and then used it with the threat of the death penalty to set off a “domino effect” of more false confessions. The detective who elicited the confessions had been reprimanded on a prior occasion for eliciting false ones.

After the sailors’ arrests, another man, Omar Ballard, confessed in a written letter from prison bragging to a friend that he alone committed the crimes. His letter provided a detailed account of the killing, while the sailors’ confessions contained inaccurate and conflicting information. His DNA matched the evidence from the scene, and none of the arrested sailors had DNA that matched the evidence.

Governor Kaine is currently reviewing the clemency petition and has declined comment on the case.

(I. Urbina, “Retired F.B.I. Agents Join Cause of 4 Sailors,” The New York Times, November 11, 2008) (emphasis added). See also Innocence and New Voices. See video about this case on DPIC’s Multi-media page.