FREE DUSTY!

Former Navy SEAL trainee convicted of murder granted a new hearing
By Bill Sizemore
The Virginian-Pilot
© April 1, 2008

Dustin Turner, a former Navy SEAL trainee who has served 12 years in prison for a notorious Virginia Beach murder, has won another day in court.

Turner, 33, is seeking to get his conviction overturned on the strength of a 2003 admission by his co-defendant, Billy Joe Brown, that Brown was solely responsible for the choking death of Jennifer Evans, a Georgia college student, outside an Oceanfront bar in 1995.

Under a 2004 law allowing convicts to present newly discovered evidence of innocence, Turner has been granted a hearing to determine the credibility of Brown's confession - a step rarely taken by the courts. The hearing will be held in Virginia Beach Circuit Court next month.

In 1995, Brown and Turner were SEAL "swim buddies" nearing the end of their training for the Navy's elite commando corps at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base. Under questioning by police, each blamed the other for the murder. Turner admitted helping cover up the crime and led police to Evans' decomposed body in a wooded Newport News park.

The two were convicted by separate juries in two highly publicized trials in 1996. Turner was sentenced to 82 years in prison; Brown, 72 years.

In a sworn statement in 2003, Brown took full responsibility for the slaying, saying he had become a Christian and "can no longer allow someone who is innocent to continue to pay for what I did."

Largely on the strength of Brown's confession - and a supportive letter from the jury foreman in Turner's case - Turner petitioned then-Gov. Mark Warner for a pardon in 2004. Warner denied the petition.

At the time of the trials, Virginia imposed a 21-day limit on the introduction of new evidence after sentencing - the strictest such limit in the country. As DNA science began calling some convictions into question, the legislature carved out an exception for biological evidence in 2001.

In 2004, the exception was widened to include non-biological evidence, allowing prisoners to petition the Virginia Court of Appeals for a "writ of actual innocence." The law sets a high standard: The new evidence must be so strong that "no rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

According to court records, 118 petitions for release had been filed under the 2004 law through the end of 2007, and none had been granted. Only six reached the stage of an evidentiary hearing such as has been ordered in the Turner case.

The state attorney general's office argued for dismissal of Turner's petition, saying Brown's credibility had been "hopelessly compromised by his ever-evolving, conflicting accounts."

Turner's attorney, David Hargett, argued in his reply brief that the only way to assess Brown's credibility is to put him on the witness stand. The appeals court agreed and ordered the hearing.

Once the Circuit Court rules on the issue of Brown's credibility, the case will return to the appeals court for disposition. The losing side will then have one final avenue of appeal, to the state Supreme Court.

Bill Sizemore, (757) 446-2276, bill.sizemore@pilotonline.com