One of two men convicted of a notorious Virginia Beach murder has changed his story and confessed to the crime, saying his co-defendant is innocent.
Billy Joe Brown says in a sworn statement that his new-found religious faith wouldn't let him stay silent while his co-defendant, Dustin Turner, does time for a crime he didn't commit.
Brown and Turner were Navy SEAL trainees stationed at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base when they were charged in the 1995 murder of Jennifer Evans, a 21-year-old pre-medical student from Georgia who was vacationing with friends at Sandbridge.
Turner led police to Evans' decomposed body in a wooded Newport News park nine days after she disappeared from a Beach nightspot. The case generated massive media coverage.
Brown and Turner, who were best friends and SEAL ``swim buddies,'' initially denied any involvement in the crime. Eventually both admitted disposing of the body together, but each blamed the other for the murder.
Now Brown says his testimony in his 1996 trial was false and Turner's version of events is correct.
``We were sitting there talking and next thing you know I reached up and choked Jennifer,'' Brown says in a sworn affidavit dated Feb. 28. ``I did this on my own without any prior discussion with Dustin Turner. He did not encourage me in any way and in fact, I remember one instance while I was choking Jennifer, Dustin trying to pull my hands away.''
Turner's defenders concede that his participation in concealing the crime leaves him with some culpability. But they say he is guilty only of being an accessory after the fact -- a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of 12 months in jail.
Turner, now 28, is serving 82 years in Augusta Correctional Center. Brown, 30, was sentenced to 72 years. Since Virginia has abolished parole, both sentences amount to life in prison.
``As a Christian, I can no longer allow someone who is innocent to continue to pay for what I did,'' Brown says in his statement. ``Dustin Turner had nothing to do with the death of Jennifer Evans.''
David Hargett, a Richmond lawyer retained by Turner's family, said Brown's confession amounts to an exoneration of Turner. But he is precluded from introducing it in court by Virginia's 21-day rule, which prohibits introduction of new non-DNA evidence more than 21 days after a verdict is delivered. A panel of judges, legislators and lawyers is studying the law and might recommend making it less restrictive. Turner plans to petition Gov. Mark R. Warner for clemency, which appears to be his only legal recourse for now.
Evans' family and the man who prosecuted Brown and Turner are unmoved by the new turn of events.
``After two separate and lengthy criminal trials, both juries spoke for Jennifer, who could not speak for herself,'' said Delores Evans, the victim's mother.
``I am sure there may be times when clemency is proper,'' Evans said, ``but if Dustin Turner were to be released through such a petition it would fly in the face of the judicial process, especially the jury system, and it would release one of two men responsible for the murder of my daughter.''
Robert J. Humphreys, who was Virginia Beach commonwealth's attorney at the time, conceded during the trial that he couldn't prove which of the men killed Jennifer Evans. The prosecution's theory was that the pair conspired to abduct her from the nightclub and that she was killed accidentally during a sexual assault.
``Given the legal theory we proceeded under, it doesn't make any legal difference that Brown wants to take full responsibility,'' said Humphreys, who is now a judge on the Virginia Court of Appeals. ``Under the law, both were legally responsible for her death.''
The current commonwealth's attorney, Harvey L. Bryant III, said his staff has received a copy of Brown's confession and is assessing it.
According to testimony, Turner and Evans met in the now-defunct Bayou nightclub on 19th Street and were attracted to each other. Sometime after midnight they went out into the parking lot and sat together in Turner's car, listening to music.
After a while, Brown, who had been drinking heavily, came out and got into the back seat of the car.
``Honest to God, it sounds crazy as can be, but I'm telling the truth,'' Brown said in an interview taped last year by a Richlands, Va., lawyer. ``One minute everything was fine and the next minute I had killed her. I just snapped.''
In the interview, Brown also admits fondling Evans' body after the murder.
Hargett said the prosecution's theory of the crime doesn't square with the facts.
``In essence, Dusty Turner was on a date with this young lady,'' Hargett said. ``Billy Brown came out there drunk and interrupted the very last part of the date. He touched her hair and she told him, in a very upset fashion, to leave her alone. And that's when he just spontaneously killed her. I think the facts very strongly suggest that it was a spontaneous act rather than some plan by the co-defendants.''
Richard G. Brydges, a Virginia Beach lawyer who represented Turner at trial, said he believes that what sealed Turner's fate was that he failed to prevent the murder, helped dispose of the body and didn't report the crime to the police.
``I happen to feel that Dusty couldn't have done anything about it if he'd wanted to, because it happened so quickly,'' Brydges said. ``Those guys are trained to kill instantaneously.''
Evans' parents sued the federal government in 1997, alleging that the men's training for the Navy's elite commando corps turned them into killing machines. The suit was dismissed in 1998.
In his latest version of events, Brown says he falsely accused Turner after finding out that Turner had implicated him and led police to the body. ``I said, well, since he decided to tell on me, the thought was, if I'm going to die, he is going to die with me,'' Brown said in the taped interview.
Brown also says he confessed to the crime three years ago in a letter to Norfolk lawyer Andrew Sacks, who represented him at trial. Sacks declined to comment, citing attorney-client confidentiality.
Brown's new account is corroborated by affidavits from two of his former cellmates. One, Jude Franco, says Brown confessed to him in the Virginia Beach city jail prior to Turner's 1996 conviction. The other, Neal Chance, says Brown admitted to the murder at Keen Mountain Correctional Center in 1999.
In their 1997 civil suit, the Evans family accused the Navy of admitting Brown into the service despite knowledge of his ``violent tendencies.'' Brown had been discharged from the Coast Guard under other-than-honorable conditions because he assaulted a superior officer, the suit alleged.
When he was 17, Brown, a high-school dropout, once beat up his 14-year-old wife in front of several police officers in his hometown of Huber Heights, Ohio, according to police records.
Turner, a multi-sport high-school athlete from Bloomington, Ind., had no criminal record before the Evans murder.
Reach Bill Sizemore at 446-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org