As Tim Kaine has become the Democratic Party’s pick for vice president, telling the convention crowd he has long taken on “anybody who treated anybody unfairly,” it is fitting to review a troublesome criminal justice case that sheds light on his character.
Shortly after Kaine became governor of Virginia in January 2006, attorneys petitioned him to pardon four young men. Known as the Norfolk Four, they were former navy sailors convicted of raping and killing an eighteen-year-old woman in 1997.
All four had confessed to the crime under high-pressure police interrogations, by a detective now in prison for corruption. Their confessions conflicted with each other and the physical evidence. None of the men’s DNA matched the evidence; but the DNA of the actual rapist and murderer, who repeatedly told police that he committed the crime alone, did match.
As I recounted with Richard Leo in our 2008 book, “The Wrong Guys,” it was a well-known case. A request for pardons had been made to Kaine’s predecessor, Gov. Mark Warner, who left office without making a decision.
The four ex-sailors and their attorneys then waited—and waited—for Gov. Kaine.
In a December 2006 editorial headlined “Attention: Tim Kaine,” the Washington Post noted that the Norfolk Four had made “a powerful case for their innocence.” Another editorial in November 2008 called evidence of the men’s innocence “overwhelming” and urged Kaine to “correct this injustice.” Thirty retired FBI agents also weighed in, calling the convictions “a tragic mistake.”
Asked about the case, Kaine noted that the retired FBI agents had “not talked to the prosecutors or investigators…. I am obligated to look at it from all sides.” More months passed.
In August 2009, Kaine granted conditional pardons to the three members of the Norfolk Four who were still in prison. While “the petitioners have not conclusively established their innocence,” Kaine stated, they “have raised substantial doubts about their convictions.” Their sentences were reduced to the time they had already served. But their convictions would stand.
“Partial justice for the Norfolk Four,” the New York Times editorialized:
“At a time when politicians do everything they can to show they are tough on crime, Mr. Kaine deserves credit for releasing them. But without being fully cleared, these men are likely to have considerable trouble returning to normal lives…. The miscarriage of justice in this case has been diminished, but not wiped away.”
Indeed. All but one of the Norfolk Four remain subject to stringent supervision. They must register as sex offenders; two had to undergo sex-offender treatment. One was labeled a “sexually violent offender” on state and county websites. It was tough to find jobs after their release. Any violations of parole could land the men back behind bars.
Tim Kaine is a centrist, and a consummate politician, and his decision in the Norfolk Four case reflects that. His desire to have it both ways, to straddle a legal line, resulted in needless deprivation for four innocent men who had already suffered far too much.
Tom Wells is an author of three books who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.