A New Chance at Freedom
1996, Dustin Turner was convicted of murder. Now, the man with him that
night says he alone killed Jennifer Evans.
By Laura Lane,
along, Dustin Turner has said he didn't kill Jennifer Evans.
It turns out the Bloomington High School South graduate, in the eighth
year of an 82-year-prison sentence, may be telling the truth.
Because of a sudden change of heart by a fellow Navy Seal also convicted
in Evans' killing, it's possible Turner won't spend the rest of his life
Billy Joe Brown, who was Turner's SEAL swim buddy, roommate and best friend,
says in a sworn statement that he was lying when he implicated Turner
because he was angry his friend told police about the murder and where
they could find Evans' body. After his conviction, he also told his lawyer,
and two cell mates, that Turner was innocent.
"The thought was if I'm going to die, he is going to die with me," Brown
said in a statement to Virginia attorney Shea Cook in July 2002. "My attitude
was since he told them, let him do the time also."
Brown, 28, admits he killed Evans. He received a 72-year sentence, 10
years less than Turner. But with no parole in Virginia, the sentences
are basically for life.
After Brown was convicted and sentenced, he testified against Turner at
his trial. He said Turner and Evans had left a Virginia Beach bar and
gone to his car to wait for her friends to come and get her. Brown said
he, too, went out to the car, where "I saw the girl laying there with
blood coming out of her nose and foam around her mouth." He said Turner
said he thought he had killed her.
He said Turner then suggested that the two take Evans' body to the beach,
rape her and dump the body in the ocean. Instead, they hid her body in
a wooded park about 30 miles away in Newport News, Va., where it was discovered
nine days later.
Turner had another version of the events of that night, but jurors didn't
Speaking by phone from Augusta Correctional Facility in Craigsville, Va.,
this week, Turner recalled what he, and now Brown, recall from that June
night in 1995.
Turner said a drunken Brown came out to his 1990 Geo and got into the
back seat. He said his friend was vulgar and belligerent, and made a rude
and sexually explicit comment to Evans.
"He touched her and when she smacked his hand, I demanded that he get
out of the car, and at the same time I was saying that, at that instant,
he just snapped and he whipped his arms around the front seat and snaps
Jennifer's neck," Turner said. "I freaked out. I never expected anything
like that. It was out of the blue."
Turner said he tried to help Evans, but it was too late.
"I started clawing at his arms to free them from her, I had to pull his
arms away. Then I saw that her eyes and mouth were open but that her arms
never came up to try and defend herself. I got his arms away from her
and she was absolutely limp. Dead. He kept yelling at me to drive, just
drive. This beautiful young lady was next to me dead and I was traumatized
and scared and I didn't know what to do so I drove away."
In his statement last year, Brown said he was drunk at the time but remembers
Turner's hand pulling on his arm while he choked Evans. He also took full
responsibility for the killing. "Honest to God, it sounds crazy as can
be, but I'm telling the truth. One minute everything was fine and the
next minute I had killed her." He also admitted attempting to have sex
with the corpse until Turner made him stop.
FIRM FAITH, BROKEN HEART
Turner's mother, Linda Summitt, a reading teacher at Ellettsville Primary
School, never lost faith in her son. She had written to Brown in 2001
asking him to tell the truth, but received a letter back in which he asked
her to never contact him again. She was heart broken. Brown was her last
hope — her son's legal appeals all had been turned down.
In March 2002, while on vacation in Florida, Summitt suffered a brain
aneurysm. After surgery and weeks of hospitalization, she returned home.
In June, she received a letter from Brown. He had become a Christian,
he wrote. He wanted to tell the truth about Evans' death.
She hired Virginia attorney Shea Cook to go to the Keen Mountain Correctional
Center to get a sworn statement form Brown. On July 2, Cook tape recorded
Brown saying Turner did not participate in the murder. He did, though,
help dispose of the victim's body.
After his conviction, Brown said he figured Turner would walk away innocent.
"I was surprised, honestly, still surprised, that they convicted him,"
Cook called Summitt at her Bloomington home to tell her about the conversation.
She drove to Virginia to get the document. "It still wasn't typed up when
I got there," she said. "So I waited until it was done."
She left the lawyer's office confident that she held in her hands her
son's ticket out of jail.
But Summitt didn't know her battle to free her son was just beginning.
She didn't know about Virginia's 21-day rule.
RULE UNDER REVIEW
Under a 1976 state law, any new evidence discovered more than 21 days
after a person is sentenced in a criminal case in Virginia cannot be heard
in court. The rule is strictly upheld; the only exception is DNA
Indiana is one of 20 states that has no time limit for the presentation
of new and compelling evidence, said Monroe County Prosecutor Carl Salzmann.
But new evidence must meet strict standards to bring about a review of
a closed case.
A task force with members representing various aspects of the criminal
justice system in Virginia currently is reviewing the 21-day rule. Critics
of the law don't want the time limit extended. They want it abolished.
So does Summitt. Because unless Brown's new testimony is presented in
court, her son's only other recourse is to seek clemency, a pardon from
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. Clemency, however, is not often granted.
Summitt hired David Hargett, an attorney in Richmond, Va., to compile
a clemency petition. It is being written now and should be filed within
a few weeks.
Hargett admits that clemency is hard to come by in Virginia. "It is a
very rare thing, but I do believe we have a legitimate chance in this
case," he said. "And if we are not successful with the governor,
we are hopeful that within the next two years or so there will be a change
in the law that will allow us to have this case heard because of new evidence
not available at trial."
He said intent of the 21-day rule was to bring an end, closure, to victims
and their families. "However, the interests of an innocent person should
always trump the interest in finality, and I think the Virginia legislators
are finally coming to that realization."
Mike West is a paralegal working with Hargett on Turner's clemency petition.
He said he's helped with many cases in which an inmate is seeking release
from prison because of new evidence.
"Of all of the folks whose cases I've worked on, Dusty is one I firmly
believe is innocent of the charges of which he has been convicted," West
Virginia's Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth will receive the
clemency request and determine if it warrants investigation by the state
parole board. It could be a year or more before a decision is made.
In a letter about the case, Virginia senior assistant attorney general
Robert Anderson said he wasn't swayed by Brown's new story. He said that
as recently as November 2001, Brown filed an appeal in his own case stating
that at most, he was an accessory after the fact and that Turner indeed
"As a legal matter, even if Brown now were to disavow his statements to
the police given years ago, the law regards such recantations with great
Richard Brydges, who represented Turner during his trial, said the prosecutor
conceded that Brown most likely killed Evans. But because Turner was there,
and did not stop the attack, he was just as guilty under the law.
He said that if Brown had said at the trial what he is saying today, it
might not have made a difference in the jurors' minds. "If they thought
he was there while it was going on and did nothing to stop it, they could
find him guilty of the same charges filed against the actual killer,"
he said. "Dusty compounded his involvement by taking off and hiding the
Brydges hopes Turner finds relief through the court system, but is skeptical
of his chance at success. "People recant every day and the judges
usually don't give that much emphasis," he said. "But I certainly hope
they do in this case, for the sake of that boy and his family."
Turner acknowledges using bad judgment the night Jennifer Evans was killed
and in the following days as he lied to police about his and Brown's involvement.
He and Brown had been together in SEAL training, side by side as "swim
buddies," for 18 months, and he said he trusted him like a brother. He
vowed to lie for Brown, but ended up confessing after he failed a lie
"This was the guy that checked my parachute, checked my dive gear, the
guy I could absolutely trust on the battle field," he said. "I felt an
obligation to him. I was trying to protect him, then I found out
he was saying I did it and he didn't do it."
He figured if he told the truth, he would have to testify against Brown.
Instead, he was arrested right long with him.
He's thankful that Brown came forward, but still angry that his friend
lied about what happened that night. "I hope one day I can forgive
him, but it's hard to say right now if I could ever do that because I've
been sitting here in prison for eight years for something I did not do,"
Turner said. "And the turmoil my family and friends have gone through
has been unimaginable."
Turner is confident his clemency petition will be granted. He admits to
being guilty of being an accessory to murder after the fact, a crime punishable
by up to one year in jail in Virginia.
But he's also aware of the possibility is may not be granted. "Unfortunately,
I know how the Virginia system works and I know that being innocent does
not equate to being free," he said.
At the time of his arrest, Turner was the youngest Navy SEAL trainee in
his platoon. He was proud of his accomplishments. He had played baseball
and basketball at South and was a competitive swimmer who went to the
state finals his senior year. He attended Clear Creek Christian Church,
down the street from the house where he grew up, and was never in much
trouble as a kid. He had no criminal record before his arrest for murder.
"It's been 10 years since I left Bloomington for the Navy, but it seems
more like the blink of an eye," he said. "More than anything else, I want
to come back to Bloomington, back home, to my family. I think it is possible.
I am not guilty of the charges I am in here for. I wanted to fight for
this county and its freedoms, yet the same system I was fighting for has
wrongly convicted me. I have had to keep hope that justice, in the end,
would come back around."
He cannot imagine spending the rest of his life in prison in the mountains
of Virginia, where he works out every day and teaches other inmates how
"It can't happen," he said of a life sentence. "It just can't."
He longs for life beyond razor-wire fences and the simple pleasures in
life — bread sticks at Noble Roman's, hunting for mushrooms in Indiana's
marshy springtime woods.
His mother intends to make it real. "If we can just get someone to listen
to us," Summitt said, "because I will not accept that my son will spend
the rest of his life in jail for something he didn't do."