August 9, 2011 4:48 PM
The Hogan Lovells Lawyer Who Helped Clear One of the Norfolk Four
Posted by Tania Karas
For Derek Tice, August 4 marked the end of a 14-year nightmare.
On that day, a state court judge in Virginia formally exonerated Tice—one of four U.S. Navy sailors known as the Norfolk Four who were convicted of raping and killing the 18-year-old wife of a fellow seaman in 1997—of two felony counts stemming from the murder. Arrested and charged on the basis of confessions later proven false, Tice and his codefendants, Joseph Dick, Danial Williams, and Eric Wilson, remained in prison long after another man, Omar Ballard, confessed to the murder. The four men's fight to clear their names became one of the country's most prominent wrongful conviction cases, spawning both a television documentary (The Confessions) and a book (The Wrong Guys: Murder, False Confessions, and the Norfolk Four).
Desmond Hogan (right), a litigation partner at Hogan Lovells (Hogan & Hartson at the time), joined the fight in 2004 after being contacted by the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the New York-based Innocence Project. Hogan estimates that over the past seven years, he and his team from the firm have spent 10,000 hours worth several million dollars on the pro bono matter. Attorneys from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Squire, Sanders & Dempsey; and Troutman Sanders represent the other members of the Norfolk Four. The Am Law Daily caught up with Hogan to discuss last week’s ruling and why the fight to exonerate the Norfolk Four has lasted so long.
What made the August 4 ruling so important?
Despite many significant victories—including the granting of a partial pardon by Governor Tim Kaine that freed Derek from prison, as well as habeas corpus victories in the state trial court, federal district court, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit—last Thursday was the first day that Derek has been a truly free man since the 1990s. There was always the risk that, despite the real killer being in prison after confessing to the crime and having his DNA found all over the crime scene, the Commonwealth of Virginia would seek to retry Derek.
Instead, on Thursday the prosecuting attorney stood in front of the court and acknowledged that the commonwealth lacks any evidence that Derek was involved in the crime. And the judge who presided over Derek’s trial dismissed the indictments against him and ordered that any consequences of Derek’s wrongful convictions be wiped from his record. Watching Derek walk out of that courtroom and hug his parents as a truly free man was a deeply meaningful moment for every member of our team.
What factors contributed to Derek Tice's wrongful conviction?
They are legion, but it all traces back to a rogue cop who used techniques long-recognized for creating the risk of a false confession. Once he secured those false confessions, he and others ignored the mountain of evidence that pointed to the Norfolk Four's innocence.
Why did it take so long for Derek Tice to be cleared after another man confessed to the crime?
Instead of acknowledging that the police got it wrong, the lead detective developed a nonsensical theory that somehow the Norfolk Four, three other sailors, and Ballard committed the crime together. Instead of abandoning this baseless theory, which was contrary to all physical evidence and common sense, the police continued to pursue convictions of the Norfolk Four. Once wrongful convictions are obtained, it takes incredible amounts of work to correct them.
How would you describe the overall experience of working on this case?
It was an honor to work on behalf of Derek Tice—his calm and faith in the face of nearly unbearable adversity was inspiring. And it was a privilege for me and others at Hogan Lovells to work with our incredibly talented friends at Squire Sanders and Skadden and Troutman Sanders who represent the other members of the Norfolk Four. The ability of our teams to work seamlessly together toward the same goal—exoneration of these innocent men—was a wonderful professional experience.
What were some of the challenges you and your team had to overcome?
The hardest part of this case has been that, despite overwhelming evidence of innocence, it still takes massive resources to get the machinery of the justice system to correct a wrongful conviction. While it takes proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict someone, the legal system has struggled in setting a standard of review for innocence cases. At times, it seems, the system requires proof beyond any conceivable shadow of a doubt before it will undo a wrongful conviction. That cannot be the standard, especially in light of the 250-plus DNA exonerations that show the system is more fallible than anyone likes to acknowledge.
What were the high points of your involvement in the case?
Besides last Thursday's ruling, the best moment occurred on August 6, 2009 when Governor Kaine granted Derek and the other members of the Norfolk Four a conditional pardon, releasing them from prison. It was an astonishing moment to watch Derek and his friend Dan Williams walk out of a maximum-security prison and into the loving arms of their families, all while hardened prison guards and the warden cheered them on.
What is the status of the rest of the Norfolk Four?
They are in the same situation that Derek was in until last Thursday: out of prison, but not truly free. They must live under severe parole conditions, as registered sex offenders, despite not being involved in any crime. As with Derek, all consequences of their wrongful convictions should be wiped away and they should be allowed to rebuild their lives. They have court proceedings pending, but those could take years to resolve. It is incumbent on the elected officials in Virginia to act swiftly to right this injustice. Hogan Lovells and Derek Tice are committed to working closely with the lawyers for the other members of the Norfolk Four to ensure that their convictions are null and void and all charges against them are dropped.
Interviews are condensed and edited for style, clarity, grammar, and spelling.
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