Virginia's governor pardoned four former sailors who became known as the "Norfolk Four," ending a decades-long fight to clear the men of rape and murder convictions based on intimidating police interrogations.
A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the governor has granted absolute pardons for the men in the 1997 rape and killing of Michelle Moore-Bosko. DNA evidence linked another man, Omar Ballard, to the crimes. Ballard said he was solely responsible and is serving a life sentence.
The "Norfolk Four" were stationed at the Navy base in Norfolk. Their case drew widespread attention when their innocence claims were backed by dozens of former FBI agents, ex-prosecutors and crime novelist John Grisham.
"These pardons close the final chapter on a grave injustice that has plagued these four men for nearly 20 years," spokesman Brian Coy said in an email.
Three of the men — Danial Williams, Joseph Dick and Derek Tice — were granted conditional pardons in 2009 by then-Gov. Tim Kaine and released from prison because of doubts about their guilt, but their convictions remained on the books. The fourth man, Eric Wilson, who was convicted only of rape, had already been released.
Wilson failed to get his conviction overturned in court because he had already completed his sentence when he brought the challenge. Because Wilson is a convicted rapist, he was forced to register as a sex offender and barred from adopting his stepson.
A federal judge vacated Williams' and Dick's convictions in October, declaring that "no sane human being" could find them guilty. Tice had his convictions erased in 2009.
Attorneys for the men argued absolute pardons from the governor carried greater weight than court rulings and were essential to helping the men rebuild their lives and reputations. They had long said they confessed only after being intimidated by police.
Williams, who lived in the same apartment building as Moore-Bosko, has said he was told he would face a capital murder charge — punishable by death — if he didn't confess. He said he caved because he wanted the 11-hour interrogation to be over.
"I just couldn't take it anymore," Williams said during an April 2015 hearing. "I couldn't take being called a liar, the pressure."
Dick also has said he was threatened with the death penalty.
The detective who questioned the men, Robert Glenn Ford, was convicted in 2011 of extortion and lying to the FBI in unrelated cases. He is serving 12 ½ years in prison for taking tens of thousands of dollars from drug dealers in exchange for getting them favorable treatment at sentencing.