RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — One of the four sailors who allege police intimidated them into falsely confessing to a 1997 rape and slaying cannot get a federal court hearing on his innocence claim because he has served his prison sentence and is no longer in custody, an appeals court ruled Wednesday.
A divided three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Eric C. Wilson's claim that the Virginia and Texas sex-offender registration laws impose such severe restraints on his liberty that they amount to custody, even though he was released from prison in 2005 after serving five years for the 1997 rape of Michelle Moore-Bosko in Norfolk.
In 2009, then-Gov. Tim Kaine granted conditional pardons to three other members of the so-called "Norfolk Four," freeing them from life prison terms but leaving their convictions for rape and murder intact. Wilson, who was acquitted of the murder charge, was already out of prison and therefore was ineligible for similar relief.
Only one of the men, Derek Tice, has managed to be completely cleared by the courts. Efforts continue on behalf of the other three.
In Wilson's case, he needed to demonstrate that he remained in custody in order to get back into federal court to challenge his conviction. The appeals court majority acknowledged that the Jourdanton, Texas, resident has a compelling case of innocence but said sex-offender registration requirements are simply "collateral consequences" of his conviction — not custody.
Judge James A. Wynn wrote in a dissenting opinion that the court has "a moral imperative" to grant Wilson a hearing.
"I am deeply troubled that our legal system would be construed to prevent a person with compelling evidence of his actual innocence and wrongful conviction from accessing a forum in which to clear his name," Wynn wrote.
The appeals court's majority suggested Wilson could pursue other avenues in state court. Wilson also could appeal the panel decision to the full federal appeals court or to the U.S. Supreme Court. His attorney, George Somerville, said he is weighing the options.
"We aren't stopping here, I can tell you that much," Somerville said.
The Virginia attorney general's office did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
Wilson, an electrician, claimed in his appeal that the conditions imposed by the sex offender registry — including mandatory re-registration every year and his inability to adopt his stepson — are so restrictive that he essentially remains in custody. Wilson also must get a new driver's license every year, his access to school grounds is restricted, and he is unable to work on jobs that require a background check, according to court papers.
Attorneys for the state had argued that despite those restrictions, Wilson was not in custody because he was not in prison or on probation.
The Norfolk Four drew national attention when their innocence claims were backed by dozens of former FBI agents, ex-prosecutors and novelist John Grisham.
DNA evidence excluded the four and implicated a fifth man, Omar Ballard, who admitted that he alone raped and killed the 18-year-old Moore-Bosko. The only solid evidence against the four were confessions extracted during "a corrupt detective's bull-headed pursuit of the wrong men," according to court papers.
That detective, Robert Glenn Ford, was later convicted in an unrelated case of extortion and lying to the FBI. He was sentenced to 12½ years in prison.
Follow Larry O'Dell on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LarryOatAP