Author John Grisham says he is writing a screenplay about one of the city’s most notorious murder cases – the rape and slaying of young Navy wife Michelle Moore-Bosko.
Moore-Bosko, 18, was killed in her apartment in Ocean View. Her husband, William, found her body July 8, 1997, when he returned to Norfolk from a Navy deployment.
The case had twists and turns from the beginning: First, a single man, Moore-Bosko’s neighbor Danial Williams, was charged with murder. Six months later, a second man, Joseph Dick Jr., was also charged.
In the months that followed, a total of eight men were arrested. Charges against three were withdrawn. Four of the five men convicted now say their confessions to the crimes were coerced and that they are innocent. Their lawyers say one man, Omar Ballard, the last man to be charged in the crime and the only suspect whose DNA was found at the scene, committed the killing alone.
Williams, Dick and Derek Tice, convicted of rape and murder, and Eric Wilson, who was convicted only of rape, have asked the governor for pardons.
Several of Grisham’s legal thrillers – “The Firm,” “The Pelican Brief” and “A Time to Kill,” to name a few – have been turned into movies. Grisham was a lawyer and legislator before becoming an author.
Grisham said he believes the men are innocent.
“I strongly believe they were wrongfully convicted,” he said.
Grisham wrote to several lawyers involved in the case to ask for interviews.
“The production company plans to start filming in Norfolk next year,” Grisham wrote.
Reached at his office last week, Grisham said he first became interested in the case a couple of years ago after reading a New York Times Magazine article. Friends who work at the Innocence Project, an organization that works to overturn wrongful convictions, also talked to him about the convicted sailors.
Since Grisham began research for his nonfiction book “The Innocent Man,” about a man wrongfully convicted of murder in Ada, Okla., he said, work on wrongful conviction issues takes second place only to writing.
“I got totally ambushed by it,” Grisham said of the subject. “I was a lawyer for 10 years, and I never had a client I thought was wrongfully convicted.”
Grisham said the story of the Norfolk men who proclaim their innocence – called “the Norfolk Four” by some – is the most compelling he has seen.
“There’s no physical evidence,” he said. “It gets into this unbelievable world of false confession.”
Grisham acknowledged that condensing the Moore-Bosko case into a two-hour movie would be difficult – there were trials, retrials, appeals and the still-pending pardon petitions. The investigation that led to the arrests of the eight men lasted two years.
“I haven’t finished the screenplay,” Grisham said. “There are so many characters, so many moving parts. I’ve been through it seven or eight times with my own books. You start off any adaptation by asking ‘What can I cut back on?’ “
He sent 15 to 18 letters, he said, and has talked to a handful of lawyers who worked on the cases. Allan Zaleski, one of the lawyers who represented Tice, said his client gave him permission to speak to Grisham. Zaleski said he believes Tice should get a pardon.
“It’s a case that just defies logic,” Zaleski said. “I don’t know how it will be portrayed by Mr. Grisham.”
Grisham said he did not know how he would handle talking to two crucial people in the case: Michelle Moore-Bosko’s parents, John and Carol Moore.
The Moores have stated repeatedly that they think the men convicted are guilty of the crimes. In an e-mail sent Friday, the Moores reacted to news of the screenplay with despair.
“Our family is devastated to learn that once again, people with inaccurate information and personal agendas are attempting to profit from the tragic death of our daughter,” they wrote. “Their lack of genuine compassion for what we have experienced through this never-ending nightmare is overwhelming. Please do not put us through this again.”
In writing “The Innocent Man,” Grisham said, he became very close to the victim’s mother and niece, and they still keep in touch. But if the Moores firmly believe in the guilt of the imprisoned men, Grisham said, they may not have much to talk about.
Meanwhile, Tice, Williams, Dick and Wilson still await word from the governor’s office. Late last year, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said he would have to disregard more than a dozen confessions to pardon the men.
Grisham said he didn’t know whether a movie would help or hurt their cause.
“I don’t know if they can be helped,” he said. “They have many years to go in prison.”