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Appeals court in Va. clears 1 of 'Norfolk 4'

Wednesday - 4/20/2011, 7:33pm  ET

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A federal appeals court on Wednesday affirmed a judge's decision overturning a former sailor's rape and murder convictions in the slaying of an 18-year-old woman in Norfolk.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that a defense attorney's failure to try to suppress a confession violated Derek Tice's constitutional rights. Tice and three other sailors, known as the "Norfolk Four," claimed after being convicted of the 1997 slaying of Michelle Moore-Bosko that their confessions were coerced.

In Tice's case, the appeals court found that the confession was illegally obtained because Norfolk detectives continued interrogating him after he invoked his constitutional right to remain silent.

"There is simply nothing we can discern from the record that would excuse the defense team's failure to move to suppress Tice's confession," Judge Robert King wrote. "The error was of sufficient magnitude that we cannot help but conclude that counsel's performance in this singular instance was constitutionally deficient."

Tice and two other members of the Norfolk Four were released from prison in 2009 after then-Gov. Tim Kaine granted conditional pardons. The fourth man had already been released after serving more than eight years in prison.

Kaine's decision left the convictions intact, however, and Tice _ who like the others was required to register as a sex offender _ persisted in trying to clear his name. A few weeks after the governor's action, U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams overturned Tice's conviction. The state attorney general's office appealed, leading to Wednesday's decision.

"We're thrilled by the 4th Circuit's decision," said Desmond Hogan, one of Tice's attorneys. "This is yet another rebuke to the commonwealth's case against Derek and the other former servicemen who were wrongly charged and convicted."

Tice's father, Larry Tice of Clayton, N.C., had a similar reaction.

"We're very happy for that decision, naturally but it just confirms what we've been saying all along _ that Derek is innocent, and the others who make up the Norfolk Four are innocent, too," he said.

The attorney general's office was "disappointed but not surprised by the ruling," spokesman Brian Gottstein said. He said no decision has been made on whether to appeal the decision.

Hogan said he hopes the state will not appeal, and that prosecutors will not seek to retry Tice.

"We don't think there's even one shred of evidence on which you could attempt to prosecute Derek," he said. "There's nothing to connect him with the real murderer."

Omar Ballard, the fifth man convicted in the case, 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 his confession was the only one that contained information matching the crime scene.

One of the detectives who elicited the confessions, Robert Glenn Ford, was convicted last October on charges of extortion and lying to the FBI. In that case, which was unrelated to the Norfolk Four investigation and prosecution, Ford was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in federal prison for taking tens of thousands of dollars from drug dealers in exchange for getting them favorable treatment at sentencing.

Thirty former FBI agents as well as some ex-prosecutors had lobbied to exonerate the ex-sailors. Their cause also was championed by novelist John Grisham, who has homes in Virginia and Mississippi.

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