FREE DUSTY!

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Ruling puts Dusty Turner one step closer to freedom
By Bethany Nolan 331-4373 | bnolan@heraldt.com
August 4, 2009
» PDF: Writ of actual innocence

A Bloomington High School South graduate who has spent 13 years in jail for a murder another man confessed to committing alone could be released from prison in light of an appeals court ruling handed down today.

The attorney representing Dustin Turner, who was a swimmer at South, said the Virginia Court of Appeals granted the Bloomington native a writ of actual innocence, vacating the murder conviction that led to Turner spending more than a dozen years in prison.

But the legal decision by a three-judge panel isn't final, attorney David Hargett said. Prosecutors can either ask the full Court of Appeals to reconsider the decision or appeal the finding to the Virginia Supreme Court. Hargett expects the state to appeal.

“It's very great news,” he said. “But it's not over yet.”

Turner's mother, Linda Summitt of Bloomington, described herself as “excited and overwhelmed” by the decision today.

“I was making arrangements to fly out to see Dusty before school starts, and I could see David was calling me on my cell phone,” Summitt said. “He never calls on my cell ... I was so apprehensive that I couldn't comprehend what he was telling me.”

The legal decision is the latest in a lengthy court battle over Turner's conviction.

And it's the first appeal to be granted under a 2004 change in Virginia law that allows new evidence to be presented more than 21 days after a person is sentenced. The previous law prevented any new evidence, other than DNA, to be considered more than three weeks after sentencing.

Turner, a 1993 Bloomington High School South graduate, is serving an 82-year sentence for the 1995 slaying of medical student Jennifer Evans in his parked car outside a Virginia Beach nightclub. He claims he was sitting in the car with Evans, talking and listening to music, when his drunken buddy and fellow Navy SEAL trainee Billy Joe Brown climbed into the back and reached over the front passenger seat and strangled the woman.

According to testimony, the two drove to Newport News and disposed of Evans' body. Turner led authorities to the body nine days later. Each man accused the other of killing Evans, and both were convicted. Brown is serving 72 years.

A Virginia judge last June ruled Brown was credible when he said he didn't have Turner's help when he strangled the Emory University student who was visiting Virginia Beach. That ruling sent Turner's request for exoneration to the appeals court.

“We conclude no rational trier of fact could have found Turner guilty of murder or abduction with intent to defile,” the Virginia Court of Appeals finding issued today said. “While Turner's conduct creates a suspicion of guilt, the evidence, viewed in the context of Brown's recantation, cannot support findings of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The decision wasn't unanimous; one of the three judges offered a dissenting opinion.

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