OWOSSO — Reminders of the coerced confession that changed his life are never far away from Danial Williams.
A black tether is fastened around his left ankle, while a portable receiver sits either secured to his belt or safely in a cradle recharging at his parent’s Owosso home, where Danial Williams resides.
Together, the devices track Danial Williams’ every move.
And when the system loses its satellite signal, his parents, Rhea and Norman Williams, and others around him know immediately because of the piercing, screeching alarm that sounds.
One of four sailors comprising the “Norfolk Four,” Danial Williams, along with three others were charged with raping and murdering Michelle Moore-Bosko in July 1997 following confessions they say were coerced by overly aggressive detectives.
Two sailors went to trial while two pleaded to crimes. Danial Williams eventually pleaded to rape and murder and was among three sentenced to life in prison. The fourth sailor, who also confessed, was convicted only of rape and served 81⁄2 years in prison.
All four recanted their confessions, but the sentences were left intact.
Now, after spending a decade in prison and a year after the governor of Virginia conditionally pardoned the three former sailors serving life sentences, Danial Williams is trying to put his life back together. It hasn’t been easy.
of the ordeal
At the time of the murder, Danial Williams and his wife Nicole lived across the hall from Michelle Moore-Bosko and her husband, William Bosko, in a Norfolk, Va., apartment complex.
After Moore-Bosko’s body was found by her husband on July 8, 1997, a detective stopped by the Williamses’ apartment and asked Danial Williams to answer some questions at the police station. He agreed, but the questioning soon became a high-pressure interrogation including false claims that went on for 10 hours. During that interrogation, Danial Williams passed a lie detector test — but detectives told him he failed, and he was then forcefully interrogated by Det. Robert Glenn Ford.
Danial Williams eventually confessed, but details in his initial story did not match up with facts evidenced by Moore-Bosko’s wounds. Under continued pressure, he offered a supplemental confession, using information about Moore-Bosko’s rape and murder fed to him by detectives.
Danial Williams was still in jail in November 1997 when his wife passed away from Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome as a consequence of her ovarian cancer.
By December 1997, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s forensic lab verbally informed detectives that Danial Williams’ DNA did not match blood or semen from the crime scene.
In the next year, Joseph Dick Jr., Eric Wilson and Derek Tice were all interrogated on their involvement with Moore-Bosko’s rape and murder. The other men, also faced with relentless questioning, provided wildly conflicting confessions. Again, they later tailored their statements to facts provided by the police.
“Several of them gave more than one confession, and their confessions changed so they conflicted with previous confessions that they had given,” said Donald Salzman, an attorney with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a law firm representing Danial Williams. “We’ve always believed that rather then being evidence of their guilt, when you look objectively at all of the confessions given by the Norfolk Four, that they’re actually powerful as evidence of their innocence because they lack any connection to what actually happened in the crime.”
By August 1998, the Commonwealth’s forensic lab had issued reports eliminating Danial Williams, Dick, Wilson and Tice as contributors of the blood and semen found at the crime scene.
In January 1999, Danial Williams pleaded guilty to capital murder and rape, and a judge later denied his motion to withdraw his guilty plea in April of that year. Dick also pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and rape in April 1999. Wilson was later tried and convicted of rape, and by February 2000, Tice had also been tried and convicted of capital murder and rape.
Danial Williams, Dick and Tice were sentenced to life in prison without parole, and Wilson served 81⁄2 years in jail.
While the Norfolk Four were charged with involvement in Moore-Bosko’s rape and murder, Ford found another suspect, Omar Ballard, who confessed to raping and killing Moore-Bosko alone in March 1999. Unlike the others, Ballard’s DNA matched evidence from the crime scene.
But even after Ballard’s confession and DNA pointed to his involvement in the crime, the sailors continued serving their sentences. Prosecutors said Ballard’s confession didn’t mean the other four weren’t part of the crimes.
Ballard continued to insist he acted alone until, in March 2000, as part of a plea deal he implicated himself and the Norfolk Four and pleaded guilty.
The beginning of the end
More than a decade after the Norfolk Four were sentenced, Ford was convicted of multiple counts of extortion and lying to federal law enforcement officials in October 2010 in an unrelated case.
Evidence proved “Ford sought out and accepted tens of thousands of dollars in bribes, and provided perjured testimony and false statements to help drug dealers remain on the streets,” according to a press release from lawyers representing the Norfolk Four.
Prosecutors also asserted that “Ford was a ‘corrupt cop’ who ‘conned’ judges and prosecutors,” according to the press release.
“Det. Ford’s conviction should be the latest and most glaring example of why this is a terrible injustice,” Salzman said. “And we hope that somebody in the Commonwealth of Virginia who has power to do so will finally recognize that these are innocent men who deserve to have their good names given back to them.”
Since 2004, a team of lawyers representing the Norfolk Four’s cases have logged thousands and thousands of hours trying to clear their names, said Salzman, who began pro bono work on Danial Williams’ case six years ago.
From 2005 to 2009, lawyers representing the Norfolk Four pursued a clemency campaign to provide information from experts who reviewed the case and concluded the four sailors were innocent and that the crime had been committed by one person, Salzman said.
Lawyers representing Danial Williams, Dick and Tice first submitted a petition for clemency on behalf of their clients to then-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner in 2005.
In 2006, jurors from the Norfolk Four trials submitted letters and affidavits to Warner urging clemency for the four sailors. They cited evidence not presented at the trials, such as Ballard’s testimony, his crime spree at the time of Moore-Bosko’s murder, Ford’s history of eliciting false confessions and Dick’s alibi. The former jurors also reviewed expert testimony from a crime scene reconstruction analyst and a forensic pathologist stating the crime was committed solely by Ballard, and another expert testimony that concluded the coercive interrogation tactics used resulted in inconsistent statements bearing the hallmarks of false confessions.
Attorneys representing the Norfolk Four also sent letters to the governor from several former federal and state judges and prosecutors who reviewed the case and believed executive clemency was appropriate.
In 2008, several former Virginia attorneys general, and later a group of retired FBI agents, also reviewed the Norfolk Four’s case and concluded the men were innocent. Both groups urged Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine to grant the men an absolute pardon.
“The criminal justice system is not perfect and it makes mistakes, and a lot of us feel that it’s important that when the criminal justice system makes mistakes…that it recognizes those mistakes and corrects them,” Salzman said. “But unfortunately that’s a lot harder thing to achieve than you would think.”
Picking up the pieces
While Wilson had already completed his prison term, Kaine granted conditional pardons in August 2009 to the three serving life sentences. Danial Williams was released from prison and returned to Owosso to live with his parents. But his name was not cleared with the conditional pardon — he continues to have a criminal record and is a registered sex offender.
For Danial Williams’ mother, more than a decade of prison sentences, a clemency campaign and restrictions meant for a convict have turned everyday life into a nightmare.
“Stemming from 13 years ago it’s like a dream. You know? You think that someday you’ll wake up and it’ll be just a dream, but it’s not. It’s real,” Rhea Williams said. “You think this is one of these things that will never happen to you.”
Since Danial Williams returned home more than a year ago, a GPS system tracks his every move and strict curfew hours dictate when he can leave his parents’ home. With the GPS tracking his whereabouts, Danial Williams said he can’t stay for too long in certain locations or he could violate his probation simply by loitering.
Even on holidays such as Christmas, visiting his aunt’s house is impossible due to its proximity to an elementary school in Owosso. Prohibited from handling firearms, Danial Williams can’t hunt with his father. And his conviction bars the family from storing Norman Williams’ guns and bows at home. They are instead kept at a relative’s house.
“I’m happy for him to be home,” Norman Williams said. “He’s not free. He’s just out of prison, that’s all.”
With the memory of more than a decade in prison and living day-to-day with convictions that curb his freedom, Danial Williams said it’s easy to get frustrated. And he’s well aware that Moore-Bosko’s family would rather have him behind bars.
“Even with all the evidence and petitions going on, the victim’s family feels that it’s all wrong and these boys should stay in jail,” Rhea Williams said. “So they’re very much against this petition and the pardons.”
But Danial Williams remains level headed.
“There’s no reason for me to…get mad and upset about anything because I know it’s not going to do me any good,” he said. “So why throw a temper tantrum?”
A clean slate
Unable to return to the Navy due to his other than honorable discharge, Danial Williams works part-time washing dishes, putting together salads and making desserts at an Owosso Township restaurant. Several times a week, he attends classes at Baker College in Owosso, and he plans to take welding courses during the upcoming winter semester.
“I’d like to find a nice job in the welding field,” Danial Williams said.
While he struggled with academic subjects in school, hands-on labor was always second nature for Danial Williams. Unable to find a job after graduating from Owosso High School, he joined the Navy where he worked with the ships’ main engines.
“I was starting them, stopping them, working on them, making sure they weren’t going to break down,” he said. “I was pretty much a mechanic.”
At the age of 23 with six years in the Navy under his belt, Danial Williams had “his whole life ahead of him” when he was charged with raping and murdering Moore-Bosko, Rhea Williams said.
Now 38, Danial Williams still has hopes of living a normal life with a wife, family and a decent-paying job. But his criminal record and sex offender status remain as blights on his record — severely impeding his ability to achieve his modest dreams.
“Right now, only working a part-time job and having to be on a curfew type of thing, he can’t afford to be out on his own living away from home because financially he isn’t able to do it yet,” Rhea Williams said. “So that’s going to mean that he’s going to have to have his name cleared, his record cleared, so he can go out and potentially get something better and live somewhere else on his own.”
It’s uncertain, however, how long the process to clear his record could take or what gains it will ultimately make. Currently, cases pending in federal and state court in Virginia are seeking to have his convictions overturned, Salzman said.
“It’s hard. I can’t predict what will happen. I feel that we have a very strong case, but there are a lot of procedural hurdles we need to overcome,” Salzman said. “But I guess the only thing I would say is that I’m optimistic.”
Danial Williams and his family are also hopeful. The Norfolk Four’s case is already being studied in schools as a teaching tool regarding confessions, Rhea Williams said. A book, entitled “The Wrong Guys: Murder, False Confessions, and the Norfolk Four” has also been written on the Norfolk Four.
And Rhea Williams hopes one day, after her son’s record is cleared of all criminal charges, his case can be utilized by others trying to prove their innocence.
“This case will be something that they can utilize for others,” she said. “When this does come to a head, this case is going to be a powerful tool.”