Few in Virginia who keep tabs on the news can have missed word that the so-called "Norfolk Four" defendants now enjoy full pardons. The governor issued the order late last month. The move marks the end of a 20-year legal battle to try to clear the men of convictions in the 1997 rape and murder of an 18-year-old woman.
Authorities won those convictions based largely on confessions made by the four defendants. There was no physical evidence linking them to the crime, but they were arrested and charged anyway. DNA Evidence eventually showed another man to be guilty. The sailors said they only confessed after enduring harsh police interrogation. One man served his full sentence. Three others received conditional pardons in 2009. Now they have absolute pardons. Readers may wonder what that means.
First, it's important to understand that pardons are not normal. It is in the discretion of the governor, but few are granted because of the political ramifications. What governor wants to be known as one who undermines the normal workings of the courts?
If a person submits a petition for pardon, one of three types might be considered.
- A Simple Pardon amounts to forgiveness. It doesn't expunge the conviction. The record remains. What it does is give the recipient a chance at a second lease on life.
- The Conditional Pardon means release from incarceration. As the name implies, there are conditions. The condition for three of the Norfolk Four men was that they had to register as sex offenders.
- With an Absolute Pardon, now granted in this case, the convictions are removed from the record. This is the only form of pardon that allows for expungement.
Someone charged with a crime is supposed to enjoy a presumption of innocence. As this case shows, the legal system doesn't guarantee that. Police and prosecutors are known to press for convictions without sufficient evidence and by pressing hard for confessions. This is why you always hear that if you've been accused of a crime, you should be seeking help from an experienced attorney.