“The Confessions”: Frontline highlights the case of the Norfolk Four

I was out-of-town on a speaking engagement when “The Confessions” originally aired on Frontline.  I strongly urge you to watch the entire program online.  It won’t be a pleasant experience.  Listening to this twisted saga kept taking me back to the recent trial of Curtis Flowers–the stories are very different in some respects, but wrongful convictions follow a familiar pattern.

Two of the attorneys representing the defendents in this case, by the way, are Des Hogan and George Kendall, key members of the legal “Dream Team”  involved in the fight for justice in Tulia, Texas.

The story of the Norfolk Four revolves around aggressive interrogation, false confession, and prosecutorial tunnel vision.  Once the detectives responsible for the investigation latched onto a theory of the crime, they clung to it tenaciously–facts be damned.

Here’s the story in a nut shell.  A man returns from a Desert Storm tour of duty to find his wife raped and murdered.  He is arrested and interrogated non-stop for half a day.  When he says he is innocent he is given a polygraph.  He passes but is told he failed.  (This is the primary function of polygraph tests, by the way.)  A DNA sample is also taken which eventually comes up negative.

But long before the test results were in, the sailor had confessed.  The negative DNA simply convinced detective Glen Ford that the sailor must have had an accomplice.  After another harsh round of interrogation, the suspect gives Ford a name.

The same scenario plays out.  Ford lies about the polygraph results (perfectly legal, by the way), applies the same hard-ball interrogation regime, and gets a second confession.  Once again, the DNA test comes up negative.  From this Ford concludes there must have been a third guy.

On and on it goes until seven men stand accused of gang rape and murder.

One of the men arrested in this case was so beaten down by the experience that, for a time, he came to believe the story detective Ford fed to him. 

Finally, a letter from an eighth man (who has no social connection to the original seven) surfaced.  The guy was angry with his girlfriend and, just to show how tough he could be, he confessed to the murder-rape. 

The man was arrested and quickly confessed.  He had been linked to two other sexual assaults in the immediate vicinity of the rape-murder within three weeks of the crime.  His DNA tested positive.  The man insisted he acted alone and never wavered from his story.

The Commonwealth of Virginia simply wove this new evidence into their existing theory of the crime.  According to the new narrative, seven white guys approach a black stranger in a parking lot.  They want to rape a woman, they say, but she won’t let them into her apartment.  “No problem,” the stranger says, “I know how to get you inside.  In fact, I’ll help you rape and murder the woman.”

The experts interviewed in the course of the documentary make several telling points.  False confessions trump any other form of evidence, they say, because no one, including defense attorneys, believes that an innocent person would confess to something they didn’t do.

Secondly, they point out that strong personalities can’t be broken by an aggressive investigator; weak personalities can be broken, and most people fall somewhere in between.  The men all confessed because they were told that they wouldn’t be let out of the room until they “told the truth.”  Eventually, they were so desperate they were willing to say whatever the investigator wanted to hear.  “Everything I told them,” one man says, “is their version of the facts.”

An expert on false confessions points out that the police only interrogate people they believe to be guilty.  Therefore, the only purpose of the interrogation is to obtain a confession.  Here we see the roots of the tunnel vision that figures so prominently in the Flowers case in Mississippi.

One expert compares the fate of the Norfolk Four to the Spanish Inquisition.  Inquisitors were limited by an elaborate set of guidelines, he says.  Any confession obtained through torture had to be replicated after 24 hours without torture.  Of course, if the person recanted, torture would resume.  In order to streamline the procedure, interrogators usually began by simply showing the suspect the instruments of torture (this is how the Catholic Church got  Galileo to stipulate that the sun revolves around the earth).  This, the expert suggested, is similar to what happened with the Norfolk Four.  Threatened with the death penalty (no idle threat in the Commonwealth of Virginia) and told that there would be no end to their torment until they confessed, the men broke down.

One defendant said he wouldn’t answer any more questions until he had a lawyer present.  He was simply ignored.

In August of 2009, the Norfolk Four received conditional pardons from Governor Tim Kaine.  Kaine said he couldn’t be sure of their innocence due to the confessions; yet he had no confidence in the Commonwealth’s case because of the disconnect between the confessions (all of them mutually contradictory) and the physical evidence.

The men were released but are still considered felons and sexual offenders.

The case of the Norfolk Four underscores the ease with which the state can manufacture testimony if it so desires.  There is no indication that Detective Ford intentionally framed innocent people.  Rather, he jumped to the conclusion that the defendants were guilty without possessing a reasonable basis for this belief.  Ford had learned to trust his gut.  Once he had nailed his feet to the floor, he, and everyone associated with the case, could either admit to an ignorant mistake or stick to the official line.

The manufacture and manipulation of witness testimony is a prominent factor in both the case of the Norfolk Four and the case against Curtis Flowers.  One expert interviewed for “The Confessions” pointed out that, despite what you might gather from watching television, sexual violence is exceedingly rare.  Only a tiny percentage of the population is tempted to engage in this kind of behavior.  The same could be said for the multiple murder of innocent strangers–the crime of which Curtis Flowers has been convicted.  Ten minutes with Curtis and you know he is an unlikely suspect.  Whoever pulled the trigger in Winona, MS back in 1996, (if the actual killer is ever discovered), will have a string of violent crimes attached to his name, count on it.  This isn’t the sort of crime a normal person with no apparent motive would ever commit. 

Please watch the Frontline feature online and let me know what you think.

6 thoughts on ““The Confessions”: Frontline highlights the case of the Norfolk Four

  1. Alan, I began watching this on Front Line when it aired a few weeks back. I could not watch it to the end. I had got the drift of it, and simply did not want to go to bed with that on my mind. I am not emotionally ready to watch it now. It was preaching to the choir for me anyway. Torture is as unacceptable in PD interrogation as it is in Abu Graib or Gitmo.

    I know it is part of piecemeal reform, but I would hope that it would become illegal for interrogators to lie to suspects. They tell them they “fail” a lie detector test. To start with, there ain’t no such thing. A polygraph can only reveal inconsistencies, and is not admissible as evidence. It is unconscionable for invesigators to lie about the results of DNA.

    How many more must there be in Norfolk and Winona and Little Rock and elsewhere before this kind of thing is history?

  2. One of the secret weapons of law enforcement everywhere is the coerced confession. The great beauty is that the vast majority of people who serve on juries and who have not been themselves subject to hostile interrogation cannot conceive of anyone being put under sufficient pressure to confess to something that they did not do. In fact one can always get someone to confess if one starts with the belief that the person is guilty and the only limit on time and pressure applied is repeat and increase until confession is achieved. Some legal systems such as that of Japan where people can be held for more than twenty days have a very high conviction rate in the high 90 percents due to confessions. Whether a confession is false depends I suspect mostly on whether the original suspect chosen is innocent.

    I think that many of us misinterpret the action of the law. Everything from interrogation to trial is actually a kind of magic ceremony. If the result is that the jurors pronounce the magic word “guilty” then the target becomes in fact guilty and every bit as deserving of punishment as if he/she really had done the actions of the crime. I do not think police and prosecutors really think that they are doing anything wrong when they coerce confessions or suborn perjury.

    I have not seen the confession as ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) TV in Australia has not broadcast it yet, however I don’t need to see it to be convinced that false confessions occur and occur often. My reading in newspapers, magazines, web sites and blogs has more than convinced me that false confessions are common. There is even a website devoted to them which is worth browsing monthly although it does not provide the details, just information that yet another such has likely occurred.


    If you are the originator of this post, may I remind you to include your byline near the top. If you are not the originator could you remind the actual originator to do so. I know it is a minor niggle but I like to know to whom I should reply when I post a comment. It is polite to address a reply to the right name and I have got into the bad habit of being polite.

  3. Damn it. I forgot to include the url for the false confession site in the link in my previous comment so the link does nothing. The correct link is here.

  4. I just watched this program for the first time the other day. Besides being outraged by the case, I had to wonder why these men, most of whom were active duty military members, weren’t tried in military court under the uniform code of military justice? Am I missing something?

  5. When will someone hook up the detective to a lie detector machine and ask him questions about his interrogations and the initial lie detector tests? And when will someone hook up the man who confessed to this crime and said he acted alone? Where are the tapes of the interrogations? Where are the lie detector tests? How many other innocent men and women have gone to death row because of this detectives coercement? Did they find even one piece of evidence that linked either of the 4 to this crime? Were their fingerprints found on a knife? Where’s are their bloody clothes? Why didn’t anyone hear? Why didn’t anyone see this gang of men coming and going from the scene? Was a shred of evidence found in their vehicles? Certainly her blood would have ended up in their cars. I hope those who have tried to acquit these men will not stop until they are fully exonerated.

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