Sixteen years ago, Michelle Moore-Bosko was brutally murdered in her home in Norfolk. Three sailors based in Norfolk were convicted of raping and murdering her, while a fourth, Eric Wilson, was convicted of only taking part in the rape. The sailors reportedly confessed to the crime, but subsequently recanted, claiming that they had been threatened with the death penalty unless they confessed. Nonetheless, the so-called "Norfolk Four" remained in prison even after a fifth man, Omar Ballard, admitted killing Moore-Bosko alone. Three of the Norfolk Four were conditionally pardoned by then-Governor and now-Senator Tim Kaine in 2007. However, the fourth, Wilson, was not included.
Wilson was released in 2005 after serving seven-and-a-half years in prison, but must register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. However, lower courts have rejected his requests for a writ of habeas corpus, saying that he technically wasn't in custody. Now he wants the Supreme Court to hear his case.
Mr. Wilson is working as an electrician in Texas. He was composed and polite when we spoke on Friday evening, though he sounded weary of talking about his lot. He would rather, he said, get ready for the Easter weekend. He had family coming in.The Yale Law School's Supreme Court Clinic is handling Wilson's case. Read their brief here. It makes a pretty compelling argument--a person who must register as a sex offender is in custody by any reasonable definition of the term, and therefore Wilson has the right to have his day in court.
But it takes time to tick off all the ways in which the effects of his conviction will linger for the rest of his life. There is the stigma, of course. He must report to the police in person every year, keep them posted about changes in his life and check in with local authorities if he travels.
Then there are the blows that really sting. He is not eligible for jobs on many government sites. He wanted to go to Niagara Falls for his honeymoon but could not get a passport to cross to the Canadian side. He cannot adopt his young stepson.
Not just that. “I’m not allowed to go to school functions for my son,” he said.
By any standard, Wilson is innocent. Not only were the confessions coerced, but they didn't match the details of the crime scene or align with one another. Additionally, the detective who interrogated the Norfolk Four, Robert Ford, is currently serving 12 years in federal prison for extortion and lying to the FBI in another case. Despite this, both the District Court for Eastern Virginia and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to hear Wilson's case. Both courts said that you have to be imprisoned, on probation, on parole or on supervised release to be "in custody"--and that the mandatory registration requirements were merely a collateral result of his conviction.
However, one of the judges filed a concurring opinion saying that while he felt the federal courts lacked jurisdiction to grant habeas, Wilson was "morally and legally" entitled to a due process claim. The dissenting judge rightly pointed out that it was inconceivable our legal system could prevent someone with overwhelming evidence of his innocence from having the chance to challenge his conviction.
One has to wonder in what world mandatory registration as a sex offender is not considered custody. After all, there's really no substantive difference between this and probation. But apparently Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli does. He refused to even file a brief in the case. However, in what can only be described as a good sign, the Supreme Court ordered Cuccinelli to file a brief by April 25.
It's hard to see how the Supremes won't grant cert to this case. Once that happens, we can only hope that Wilson will finally have the chance to clear his name.