Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine added another chapter to the notorious "Norfolk Four" case Thursday by setting free three of four sailors convicted in the killing, weeks after famous courtroom crime novelist John Grisham said he was working on a screenplay and thought the men were innocent.
Mr. Kaine stopped short of calling the convicted Navy sailors innocent in the 1997 rape and murder of Norfolk teenager Michelle Moore-Bosko, another sailor's wife, but he said he doesn't think there is enough evidence to keep them in prison, either.
In releasing the men - Danial Williams, Derek Tice and Joseph Dick Jr. - Mr. Kaine, a Democrat nearing the end of his term, said he had "substantial doubts about their convictions and the propriety of their continued detention." A fourth man, Eric Wilson, was released from prison in 2006.
The men confessed to the crime but later said their statements were coerced. Their attorneys argued that no evidence linked them to the crime scene. A fifth man, Omar Ballard, who was convicted, has since said that he alone killed the 18-year-old woman.
The victim's parents reacted angrily to news of the sailors' release. John and Carol Moore said there was "absolutely zero new evidence" to justify Mr. Kaine's conditional pardons, according to an e-mailed statement after Mr. Kaine announced the decision.
The Moores, who live in Pittsburgh, said they think recent interest in the case by Mr. Grisham, a best-selling author and big donor to Virginia Democrats, played a major role in the pardons. Mr. Grisham told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper last month that he thought the men were innocent and that he was writing a screenplay about the case.
"Obviously, Mr. Grisham's wealth and influence are far more important to Governor Kaine's political aspirations and public image than truth or justice," the Moores said. Mr. Grisham's office did not return a phone message late Thursday.
Since 2000, Mr. Grisham has given about $400,000 to Virginia Democrats, including $100,000 to Mr. Kaine's campaign for governor, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
Mr. Kaine told reporters that the pardons had "nothing to do with politics."
"This was a horrible crime that their 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," he said of the family's criticism.
But the Moore family wasn't alone in criticizing the decision, which frees the men from prison but does not exonerate them as a full pardon would. Attorneys for the sailors said Mr. Kaine didn't go far enough and that he should have given full pardons instead.
"Governor Kaine has set an impossible standard for the grant of an absolute pardon," said Don Salzman, attorney for Williams. "The Norfolk Four case is no different than the other 40 or so false confession cases that led to complete exonerations based on DNA evidence."
Dick's attorney, George Kendall, called Mr. Kaine's decision "illogical."
"He agrees that there was absolutely no physical trace at the crime scene of any of the innocent sailors and that their conflicting confessions create substantial doubt," Mr. Kendall said in a statement through the Innocence Project, an advocacy group that fought for full pardons. "Governor Kaine's failure to grant absolute pardons based on innocence to these innocent Navy men further compounds the many mistakes of the Norfolk police and prosecutors that led to their wrongful imprisonment."
Mr. Kaine said he had "serious doubts" about the role of anyone other than Ballard in the crime, but that Norfolk Four defendants "have not conclusively established their innocence" and so a full pardon wasn't warranted.
Still, Mr. Kaine said there were enough doubts to release the men from prison. For one thing, he said, the crime scene initially convinced police investigators that there was only one suspect.
Mr. Kaine also cited "a complete lack of any DNA or other physical evidence tying these individuals to the crime scene."
Mr. Kaine said none of the original confessions mentions Ballard.
Ballard was "the one person who has been conclusively proven to have been a participant," he said, citing DNA evidence and Ballard's history of assaults against women.
"That Ballard confessed to committing the crime alone, and that he only changed his story to implicate the petitioners one year later on the verge of a plea bargain that allowed him to avoid possible capital murder charges, raises additional questions," Mr. Kaine said.
Mrs. Moore-Bosko was raped and killed in her Norfolk apartment on July 7, 1997. Her husband, a sailor returning from sea, discovered the body. Dick pleaded guilty in 1999, while Wilson and Tice pleaded not guilty and were convicted.
The Virginia office of the attorney general for years has fought to uphold the convictions against Williams, Tice and Dick.
"The Constitution of Virginia vests the governor with an extraordinary power, that of executive clemency," Virginia Attorney General Bill Mims said Thursday after the pardons were granted. "This power should be wielded rarely and with great care, since it supersedes the collective judgment of judges and juries.
"I have the utmost respect for Governor Kaine and am confident his decision was made with great care," he said.