Sunday, November 16, 2008

Politics as usual in Virginia Governor’s Mansion

The voices of 26 retired FBI agents have joined the chorus of law enforcement, prosecutorial and judicial professionals urging Governor Timothy Kaine (D) to pardon the Norfolk Four—sailors Danial J. Williams, Joseph J. Dick Jr., Derek E. Tice and Eric C. Wilson—convicted of the 1997 rape and murder of Michelle Bosko in Norfolk, Virginia. The crime was committed by Omar Ballard, who acted alone. Only Ballard’s DNA was found at the crime scene. His confession accurately mirrors the evidence. The “confessions” obtained from Williams, Dick, Tice and Wilson were coerced and false, wrung from them by local police under threat of the death penalty.

The clemency applications of the Norfolk Four actually landed on the desk of former Virginia Governor Mark Warner (D) in 2005. It is customary for outgoing governors in Virginia (which holds off-year elections for top state posts) to act on pardon applications prior to leaving office. The fact that Governor Warner did nothing signaled two things: he had ambitions for some other high office, and he thinks the people of Virginia are too stupid to understand what four former Virginia Attorneys General and numerous others were able to conclude, that these four men are innocent.

One could say his ploy worked, since Warner was just elected to the U.S. Senate, to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Senator John Warner (no relation to Mark Warner). Governor Tim Kaine presumably has similar aspirations, since he, too, has let the Norfolk Four application languish. The FBI agents sent their letter supporting the pardon to Governor Kaine in July of 2008. After months passed without as much as an acknowledgement, they called a press conference and released the text of their letter to the public on November 10, 2008. In a gesture reflecting gubernatorial arrogance, an aide confirmed that Governor Kaine received the letter, but there was no further comment.

This imperial “fiddle while Rome burns” inaction follows a fine tradition in Virginia. Repeated DNA tests proved that Earl Washington was innocent of the rape and murder of Rebecca Williams in Culpeper, Virginia in 1982. Yet former Governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) waited until the last hour of his governorship in 1994 to commute Washington’s death sentence, changing it to life in prison without parole. Governor Wilder had bigger plans, a run for the presidency, and he couldn’t afford to be seen as “soft on crime” by releasing an innocent man from prison.

It fell to Governor Jim Gilmore (R) to do the right thing by Earl Washington, and he didn’t wait until the end of his term in office to do so. On October 2, 2000, Governor Gilmore announced: "In my judgment, a jury afforded the benefit of the DNA evidence and analysis available to me today would have reached a different conclusion regarding the guilt of Earl Washington. Upon careful deliberation and review of all of the evidence, as well as the circumstances of this matter, I have decided it is just and appropriate to intervene in the judicial process by granting Earl Washington an absolute pardon for the capital murder and rape of Rebecca Williams.”

When Barack Obama won the U.S presidential election—and a majority of Virginians voted for him—Governor Tim Kaine announced jubilantly that his victory marked “the end of Ol’ Virginny.” Really, Governor Kaine? Prove it. For just a moment, stop following lockstep in the paths of your Democratic predecessors, set aside your own ambitions and do the right thing. Grow a spine. Pardon the Norfolk Four.

1 comment:

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