2010 Bookseller Resource Guide
New Press Book Plays Key Role in Pardons
2009-09-04 The Wrong Guys: Murder, False Confessions, and the Norfolk Four by Tom Wells and Richard A. Leo, published in November 2008 by The New Press, may have played a critical role in the recent pardon and release from prison of the wrongfully convicted sailors known as the Norfolk Four. The sailors, the subject of the book, which uses this case to look at the role of false confessions in the American criminal justice system, were pardoned by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine on August 6, 2009, and have been released from prison.

The role of the book can be traced through news articles beginning with a July 8, 2009, article in the Washington Post called “Grisham’s Passion Project: A ‘Norfolk 4’ Screenplay.” Here, best-selling author John Grisham recounts having been sent a pre-publication copy of The Wrong Guys by the authors, and having decided subsequently to write a screenplay based on the case:

A book about the case was published last year, and it has been featured on television and in magazines. Grisham said yesterday in a phone interview that a magazine article first piqued his interest, and the authors of "The Wrong Guys" sent him an advance copy, seeking a quote for the book jacket. The book explores the phenomenon of false confessions, and the convicted sailors explained how they were persuaded to confess to rape and murder. Grisham, who has a law degree, said he was impressed. He not only provided a quote but also "started toying with the idea of a screenplay," he said. [Washington Post, 7/8/09]

In August, when Virginia Governor Tim Kaine’s pardon was announced, the victim’s family, the Moores, “blamed” Grisham’s announcement for bringing attention to the case and influencing the governor’s decision. As the Virginian-Pilot reported:

The case has become a cause célèbre in circles. It inspired a book, "The Wrong Guys: Murder, False Confessions and the Norfolk Four." Best-selling author John Grisham recently said he was writing a screenplay on the case. The Moores say they believe politics played a role in the governor's decision. "We do not believe it is a coincidence that Governor Kaine granted these pardons just a few weeks after the announcement that John Grisham intends to write a screenplay," they wrote. [Virginian-Pilot, 8/7/09]

Most recently, the case of the Norfolk Four and the remarkable influence of The Wrong Guys has been covered in The New Yorker, where Jeffrey Toobin summarized the role of the book:

The turning point may have come in 2008, when Leo, through a mutual friend, slipped the unpublished manuscript to John Grisham, who lives in Charlottesville. “They put together a very convincing story,” Grisham said the other day. Grisham decided to make his own appeal on behalf of the four men. “The Governor is an old ally of mine, and I know he does not discuss clemency with anyone,” he said. “Still, several months ago, we had a glass of wine. . . . Let’s put it that way. I feel sure he read the book.”

The book came out late last year, and on August 6th Governor Kaine gave the men—and the authors—a kind of vindication. Kaine awarded conditional pardons to Williams, Dick, and Tice, which meant that they could be released from prison immediately. [The New Yorker
, 8/24/09; read the whole Talk of the Town article here]

In addition to playing a role in getting three wrongly convicted men out of prison, The Wrong Guys has helped to put the topic of false confessions front and center in national conversations about criminal justice reform. The last paragraph of a New York Times piece on the Norfolk Four Case quotes the sailors’ lawyer George Kendall advocating for the book’s reform recommendations:

If Virginia wants to avoid false confessions in the future, Mr. Kendall said, all criminal defendants should be given access to counsel before being interrogated and all interrogations should be recorded in full… [New York Times, 8/7/09]

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