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A strange and terrifying story of justice gone awry

The story starts with this: "In the wake of a brutal crime, in an interrogation room, inside this police station, four U.S. Navy sailors were relentlessly questioned, hour after hour. One by one, eventually, they all confessed. Based on these confessions, the jury found them guilty. But were they telling the truth?"

The scene described unfolded in 1997. In November of 2008, an editorial in The New York Times weighed in on what happened. "Wrongful convictions are a staple of legal fiction and thankfully less common in real life. But there is overwhelming evidence of wrongful convictions in a case known as the Norfolk Four. Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia should pardon Derek E. Tice, Joseph J. Dick Jr., Danial J. Williams and Eric C. Wilson."

Right. That seems to answer the question, "But were they telling the truth?" And yet there is so much more to the story.

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Frontline: The Confessions (PBS, 9 p.m.) explores the whole strange and terrifying saga. There's a warning to viewers in the opening: Discretion is advised because some disturbing scenes of violence and sexuality are described. However, that's not the terrifying part. It's the bizarre, blithely conducted miscarriage of justice that is truly disturbing.

On a July night in 1997, at the U.S. naval station in Norfolk, Va., sailor William Bosko left his ship after a routine mission at sea and rushed home. Only recently married, he was anxious to see his wife. When he entered their apartment he found her dead, apparently the victim of a brutal crime. He went to a neighbour, Danial Williams, blurted out that his wife was dead and Williams called 911. Months later, eight men had been charged, including Williams. The police had five confessions. And yet only the DNA of one of the men matched that found at the scene of the crime.

It seemed implausible that several innocent men would confess to an appalling crime they didn't commit. The program (made by multi-Emmy-winner Ofra Bikel) explains with devastating clarity what happened. Nobody - not a jury, a judge nor most ordinary people - believes that someone will actually confess to a crime if they are innocent. Yet we see how easy it is for a skilled interrogator to manipulate a frightened, unsophisticated person into a confession. We even see it unfold, as a former NYPD detective shows how a series of barked questions can confuse a detainee.

Worse, for the men involved in this case - they became known as "the Norfolk Four" - outright deception was used. One was told he had failed a polygraph test when he hadn't. Then, as evidence actually pointed away from the accused, the police needed to create ever more elaborate scenarios to justify confessions that made little sense.

Thus, when the eighth man, a guy with a record of rape convictions named Omar Ballard, was found to be the only DNA match for the murder, the prosecution was in a bind. Ballard confessed to the rape and murder of Michelle Bosko, but said that he did it alone. This made sense, given the forensic facts. However, with seven other people already in jail, the prosecution could not change course without admitting to errors. What the prosecution and police then did was present a new theory of the crime. It was a gang rape and murder, with Ballard having met the group outside the victim's home, and all eight men then committing the crime.

It defied logic. It didn't fit the evidence. But confessions had been made. In the program, several of the men - they have been released on "conditional pardon" but are registered as convicted sex offenders - explain how a police officer extracted confessions from them. In a final twist, that police officer who triumphantly produced the confessions was recently convicted of two counts of extortion and one of lying to the FBI.

A lot of fictional TV shows seek to terrify viewers about deranged serial killers lurking everywhere. They glorify police work and make heroes of prosecutors. And yet, obviously, sometimes it's the police who are the most terrifying of all.

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ALSO AIRING

The Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010 (Bravo!, 9 p.m.) is, you know, the dreamiest thing in the book racket. You're nothing if you're not there, looking awkward but decidedly aloof and very pleased with yourself, as the TV cameras prowl around. Seamus O'Regan, obviously a nice man who will do the right thing when called upon to host such a surreal event, is the conductor. The five works of fiction nominated are Annabel (Kathleen Winter), Light Lifting (Alexander MacLeod), The Matter With Morris (David Bergen), The Sentimentalists (Johanna Skibsrud) and This Cake Is for the Party (Sarah Selecky). The smart money is on Annabel, with a late-breaking groundswell for Light Lifting. Bet on both is my advice. But everybody will be all clappy-happy at the end, even the bitter, losing writers and publishers. That's the nifty TV part.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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