RICHMOND, Va. (CBS/AP) Three men convicted in the rape and slaying of a fellow sailor's wife more than a decade ago have walked free to the outrage of the victim's family - who blamed the decision on political pressure from novelist John Grisham.
Virginia Governor Tim Kaine on Thursday granted conditional pardons to ex-sailors Derek Tice, Danial Williams and Joseph Dick Jr. They, along with another ex-sailor, Eric Wilson, were known as "The Norfolk Four" and convicted in the 1997 slaying of 18-year-old Michelle Moore-Bosko.
At first the case against the sailors was open and shut. All four had confessed to the crime. But the sailors later said those confessions were coerced. And DNA found at the scene implicated a fifth man, who later confessed and was also convicted.
Grisham, who has homes in Virginia and Mississippi and is famous for his legal thrillers, has said he believed all four are innocent and is writing a screenplay about their case. Since 2000, he has donated more than $390,000 to Virginia Democrats, including $175,000 to Kaine and his political action committee, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a statewide tracker of campaign donations. Grisham also serves on the board of The Innocence Project, which fights to free wrongfully convicted inmates.
"Obviously, Mr. Grisham's wealth and influence are far more important to Governor Kaine's political aspirations and public image than truth or justice," Carol Moore and her husband John said in an e-mailed statement.
Grisham did not immediately return calls for comment.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the men harshly criticized Kaine's decision, saying they would continue to fight for the convictions to be thrown out completely. The men's relatives were also dissatisfied.
"We are overjoyed that we have a chance to get our sons back, but this is bittersweet," said Derek Tice's mother, Rachel Tice. "This has been an 11-year-plus ordeal for our families. Our sons, who are innocent, lost more than a decade of their lives and their convictions still hang over their heads."
Besides Grisham, 30 former FBI agents as well as some ex-prosecutors have backed the men, saying they are not guilty.
Moore-Bosko's parents charged that Kaine, who is chairman of the Democratic National Committee, bowed to political pressure.
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"Let him walk in our shoes, let's see how he would feel," a sobbing Carol Moore told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from her Pittsburgh home. "This is nothing but political and John Grisham."
Kaine, who inherited the pardon requests from former Gov. Mark Warner, said he is the only official who has exhaustively reviewed all the cases and said he's "very comfortable" with his decision. The four men did not conclusively prove their innocence, but there were "grave doubts about at least the level of their complicity in the crime," he said. Each confessed to the murder. After they were convicted, they claimed their confessions were coerced.
When released, the men will be subject to supervision by the state parole board, Kaine said.
"This was a horrible crime that their young daughter was the victim of, and they are entitled to feel however they want to feel and I wouldn't suggest anything about the way they should feel," Kaine said. "My heart really goes out to them like it has through this whole process."
Wilson spent 8½ years in prison but was acquitted of her murder. Because he is no longer imprisoned, he did not qualify for a conditional pardon, which modifies or ends a sentence imposed by a court.
A fifth man, Omar Ballard, was later convicted and has said he alone raped and killed Moore-Bosko, whose sailor husband was at sea when she was slain in her apartment. His was the only DNA found at the scene, and Kaine said his was the only confession that contained information matching the crime scene.
George Kendall, Dick's attorney, said Kaine's failure to grant absolute pardons "further compounds the many mistakes" that were made.
Frank Stokes, one of 30 former FBI agents who reviewed the cases and concluded the men were wrongfully convicted, called the governor's decision outrageous. He said glaring inconsistencies in the confessions "show more the innocence than the guilt of these young men."
Not all the men's supporters reacted as strongly, however.
"While I would have preferred he grant an absolute pardon, it's a very practical-oriented result," said Richard Cullen, a former state attorney general.
Kaine had previously issued just four other conditional pardons and three absolute pardons. Supporters had pleaded with Kaine to act on the requests before leaving office. Kaine said he couldn't immerse himself in the complex case until the last of the appeals were exhausted in January.
The men's lawyers vowed to continue the fight, perhaps by filing a new clemency petition with the next governor. Kaine's nonrenewable four-year term ends in January.
"This grave miscarriage of justice will not fully end until the Commonwealth of Virginia officially recognizes that all four men are innocent and their good names have been cleared," said Des Hogan, who represents Tice.