A former Navy SEAL trainee convicted in the slaying of a young woman in
Virginia Beach in 1995 has become the first person exonerated of murder under a 2004 state law that allows convicts to try to prove their innocence by presenting new non-DNA evidence to a court.
The Virginia Court of Appeals on Tuesday granted a "writ of actual innocence" to Dustin A. Turner. The court's decision was based on the statements of co-defendant Billy Joe Brown, who said his conversion to Christianity led him to confess years after the crime that he alone committed the slaying.
Turner and Brown, friends and fellow SEAL trainees, were found guilty of murder in the killing of Jennifer Evans, a 21-year-old premedical student from Georgia whom they met at a Virginia Beach bar.
Initially, each man blamed the June 19, 1995, slaying on the other. But in a 2002 taped confession, Brown admitted that he "spontaneously choked" Evans while the trio were in a car parked outside a nightclub. Turner helped Brown dispose of the body in the woods.
In a split decision, a three-judge panel of the court threw out murder and abduction convictions against Turner, but the court found him guilty of being an accessory after the fact.
"This is what we've been hoping for all these years," said David Hargett, Turner's attorney. He said his client is "very, very pleased that the Court of Appeals has agreed he is legally innocent."
David Clementson, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General William C. Mims, said the office is reviewing the ruling, which can be appealed. He declined to comment further.
Turner remains in prison in Virginia. The appeals court sent his case back to Circuit Court to modify the conviction.
Virginia had long barred the introduction of new evidence more than three weeks after sentencing, but in 2001, the General Assembly began changing the law after some high-profile exonerations in the state and across the country.
A 2001 law gave inmates the right to ask for DNA tests at any time. The next year, Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment that allows felons to present that scientific evidence to the Virginia Supreme Court. The 2004 law expanded the rule to allow inmates to submit new non-DNA evidence such as fingerprints, ballistics, witnesses or recanted testimony.
At his trial, Turner testified that he tried to pry Brown's arms off of Evans's neck during the attack but could not, according to court documents. Turner later led authorities to Evans's body. "Obviously he wishes he could have done more," Hargett said, "but the truth is there was a bit of shock."
The case is the second in which the Virginia courts have issued a writ of actual innocence based on non-biological evidence. Last year, a man found guilty of illegally possessing a gun was exonerated after the court found that the weapon was a gas gun, not an actual firearm.