FREE DUSTY!

Richmond Times-Dispatch

1995 murder conviction of SEAL trainee overturned

STEVE HELBER/AP

Dustin Turner talked about his case during an interview a year ago at the Powhatan Correctional Facility.

By Will Jones

Published: August 5, 2009

The Virginia Court of Appeals yesterday overturned the first-degree murder conviction of a former Navy SEAL trainee in the 1995 slaying of college student Jennifer Lea Evans in Virginia Beach.

In granting an appeal of Dustin Allen Turner, a divided three-judge panel vacated his convictions of murder and abduction with intent to defile and found him guilty only of being an accessory after the fact -- a misdemeanor. The judges remanded the case to the Virginia Beach Circuit Court with instructions to modify the conviction order accordingly.

Turner and fellow SEAL trainee Billy Joe Brown were sentenced to 82 and 72 years respectively in the June 19, 1995, slaying of Evans in a parked car outside a Virginia Beach nightclub.

Brown now says he alone murdered Evans, a 21-year-old student at Emory University. Last summer, Judge Frederick B. Lowe of Virginia Beach Circuit Court told the Appeals Court that he found Brown's new account credible.

In reviewing Turner's petition for a writ of actual innocence, the Appeals Court said that based on the Circuit Court's findings and the nonconflicting evidence from Turner's trial, "we conclude no rational trier of fact could have found Turner guilty of murder or abduction with intent to defile.

"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 judges wrote.

Linda Summitt, Turner's mother, said yesterday that she had spoken to her son, who is being held at the Powhatan Correctional Center, and described him as happy but cautious about his prospect of freedom.

"It's been a long time in coming," she said. "I'm taking it more as the end of the road. After 14 years we've adjusted to a lot of things, but I've always known he was going to come home."

Summitt, who lives in Indiana, added, "I think God's smiling down on us right now. . . . I'm just thankful Billy Brown found the strength to recant."

Evans' parents, Delores and Al Evans of Atlanta, could not be reached.

A spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Bill Mims was not ready to say whether the case would be appealed, either to the full Court of Appeals or to the Virginia Supreme Court. "We are reviewing the court's opinion," spokesman David Clementson said.

Turner and Evans met at a Virginia Beach nightclub and left together early the morning of June 19, 1995. Brown, who had been drinking heavily at the same club, joined them in the car and got into the back seat.

A witness testified that Turner told him -- as Turner and Evans left the bar -- that they, along with Brown, "were going to have a threesome." Another witness said Brown initially planned to leave with her and not Turner that night.

Under questioning nine days after the slaying, Turner led authorities to where the men left Evans' body in dense woods just off Interstate 64 in Newport News. Turner said Brown killed Evans, Brown said Turner did, and both men were convicted in 1996.

After entering prison and finding religion, Brown said he alone killed Evans by reaching over the front passenger seat and choking her.

Yesterday's opinion included a dissent from Judge Cleo E. Powell, who said the key question was not whether Brown had acted alone in the murder but whether Turner had abducted Evans with the intent to defile her.

"If he did, the fact that Brown may have acted alone in committing the murder does not absolve Turner of his guilt," Powell wrote.

The judge said the record provides evidence to conclude "that Turner deceived Evans into going to his car with the true intent of both he and Brown having a 'threesome' with Evans against her will."

Turner is the first person in Virginia to have a murder conviction overturned under a 2004 law that allows non-DNA evidence of innocence to be considered more than 21 days after sentencing.

If the decision stands, David B. Hargett, Turner's lawyer, said his client would be set free because he would receive credit for time served if his convictions are reduced to being an accessory after the fact -- a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by no more than 12 months in jail.

"We're very optimistic that this decision will be the decision from the courts, but there's no guarantee," Hargett said.

Contact Will Jones at (804) 649-6911