Another man's confession could be key for convicted SEAL
By BILL SIZEMORE, The Virginian-Pilot
© November 14, 2004, Used by Permission
In 1995, after Navy SEAL trainee Dustin Turner led police to the body
of a missing female college student, one of his superior officers
advised him to get a lawyer.
"For what?" Turner replied, thinking to himself, "Why in
would I need a lawyer? Lawyers are for criminals."
Turner is not so naive anymore. Nine years and six lawyers later, he
sits in a state prison doing 82 years with no chance for parole, even
though his codefendant and ex-SEAL "swim buddy," Billy Joe Brown,
signed a sworn statement last year saying Turner had nothing to do
with the murder.
Brown's confession matches, in most details, the story Turner has
told since 1995 and is consistent with other evidence in the slaying
of Jennifer Evans. Brown changed his story after finding religion in
prison and now says he acted alone in snapping the neck of the
Georgia college student, who had been visiting Virginia Beach on
The prosecutor concedes that Brown likely killed Evans, but insists
that Turner is equally guilty.
The jury foreman in Turner's case says the verdict may have been
different had Brown confessed to the murder during the trial.
The victim's mother and other jurors remain conflicted. "You don't
know how much of yourself, your hopes and your dreams are invested in
your children, I guess, until you lose one in my case, my one aand
only,'' Delores Evans said in a recent interview. "All my future
hopes and dreams of one day seeing her graduate from college and
medical school, seeing her blossom and hopefully meeting the person
of her dreams … all that snuffed out in one brief moment of violeence.
Turner, a model prisoner who tutors fellow inmates in math and
English, says he is guilty only of helping his SEAL buddy conceal the
crime Â a misdemeanor punishable by no more than a year
At a time when more and more inmates are using DNA to win their
freedom, Turner's case falls into the vast majority of murder
convictions: It involves no DNA evidence. With that avenue to
exoneration closed, the legal hurdles facing Turner are daunting. His
hopes rest on Gov. Mark R. Warner, from whom he is seeking a pardon: a
form of relief rarely given.
If Turner is released, it will be due in no small part to his mother,
who has believed in her son's innocence from the beginning and has
devoted her life to getting him freed.
Jennifer Evans and Dustin Turner followed different paths to Virginia
Beach, but both had childhoods full of promise.
Evans grew up in Tucker, Ga., an Atlanta suburb.
Attractive and ebullient, with a radiant smile, she was a high-school
gymnast and cheerleader, a clarinet player and a member of the
National Honor Society. She became a pre-med student at nearby Emory
In June 1995, at the end of her junior year, she joined her Emory
roommate for a week-long stay in a Sandbridge beach house rented by
the roommate's family.
Turner grew up in Bloomington, Ind., a college town 50 miles south of
Indianapolis. Tall and handsome, he was a multi-sport high-school
athlete, a junior deacon in his church and a Boy Scout.
Turner's father and stepfather are both Vietnam veterans. An uncle
was a Green Beret, and his older brother became a career Navy man.
Turner felt the pull of the military as well, and at 17 joined the
Navy's early-entry program. Six months after finishing high school,
he was in training for the SEALs, the Navy's elite commando unit,
which ultimately brought him to Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base.
On Sunday evening, June 18, 1995, after a cookout on the beach,
Evans, her college roommate and another friend went to the Bayou, a
now-defunct nightclub on 19th Street. It didn't take Evans long to
spot Turner, who was there with his swim buddy Brown.
The attraction between Turner and Evans was strong and mutual,
according to court testimony.
After a while her friends were ready to go home, but Evans wanted to
linger. She was purposely drinking her beer slowly so she could
remain behind with Turner, friends testified. The college roommates
compromised: Evans would stay at the Bayou with Turner until closing
time, 2 a.m. Her friends would go out for coffee and come back to
pick her up.
Evans and Turner happily headed back into the club where a probblem
According to testimony, Brown had consumed some 50 drinks that day â “
beers interspersed with shots of Jim Beam and was so drunk thatt
had trouble standing. He would need a ride to the barracks. Turner
asked Kristen Bishop, an ex-girlfriend of Brown's, if she would drive
Thinking that was settled, Evans and Turner walked hand-in-hand out
of the bar to Turner's silver Geo Storm hatchback. Turner had just
put a CD in the player when he spotted Brown approaching the car.
Apparently the plan to get him home had unraveled.
"Don't pay any attention to this guy; he's drunk," Turner told
Brown had a violent past that Turner knew nothing about at the time.
When he was 17, Brown beat up his 14-year-old wife in front of
several police officers in his hometown of Huber Heights, Ohio,
according to court records. Later he was discharged from the Coast
Guard under other-than-honorable conditions for assaulting a superior
officer. The Navy has never explained how he got into the SEAL
program with such a record.
Spewing obscenities, Brown got into Turner's car behind Evans and
began pawing at her hair and shoulders, Turner testified. When Evans
tried to brush his hand away, he snapped.
"Next thing you know, I reached up and choked Jennifer," Brown
in his confession, a sworn statement taken in 2003.
Turner gave this account in a recent interview: "When I turned, he
had his left hand locked over his right elbow and he had his knees
against the seat in front of him. This guy's about 220 pounds, and he
was pulling with all his might with his knees locked against the
seat. … The initial snap was so forceful, the whole car shook.
"Not once did her hands come up to try to defend herself. It confused
me at first. I knew that he had made some kind of aggressive move,
and yet she's just sitting there with her hands to her side and her
head facing out the window, and she was completely limp, just in that
instant. So I'm clawing at his fingers . ... It couldn't have been
any more than a few seconds by the time I pried his arms off her."
But it was too late. Evans was dead.
"Just drive," Brown yelled at Turner. "Get out of here.
We've got to
leave." So Turner started the car and drove onto Interstate
through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel to Newport News Park, where
he and Brown dumped Evans' body in a wooded ravine. At one point,
Brown started to molest the body. "I just couldn't believe it,"
Turner testified. "I said, 'Brown, get off of her,'" and the
drove back to Little Creek.
The next day, Turner testified, Brown told him: "I know what I did
was stupid, and I'm sorry … but we've got to stick together now. …
We're both in this now."
For several days, they did stick together. Acting on a tip from
Brown's ex-girlfriend, the Virginia Beach police began questioning
the two SEAL trainees. Both initially denied any knowledge of the
crime. But Turner began to weaken.
"It had been over a week, and all this stuff was really weighing
me hard," Turner said in the interview. "The detectives were
saying, 'Look, her family is devastated. They want to know what
happened to their daughter. Just help them out.' … That's what reeally
broke me down. I said, 'Look, I'll tell you whatever you want to
Turner told the police that Brown was the killer, and then he led
them to the body.
Brown, in turn, blamed Turner. "Dustin was my friend, but I told
police he was involved when I was informed he had 'rolled' on me,"
Brown said in his confession.
That left the prosecutors in a quandary: two suspects, each blaming
the other for the murder, and little physical evidence because of the
body's advanced state of decomposition.
They charged both men with murder and abduction, arguing that they
conspired to kidnap Evans for the purpose of a sexual assault and
that she was killed accidentally in the process.
"We suspected Brown might have been the one who actually killed her,
but we couldn't prove it," Robert J. Humphreys, the chief prosecutor
in the case, said in a recent e-mail interview.
Humphreys is now a judge on the Virginia Court of Appeals.
Brown's 2003 confession does nothing to undermine Turner's
conviction, Humphreys said. "He was present and he aided and abetted
in the abduction and killing of Jennifer Evans and under Virginia law
that makes him as guilty of murder as if he shot her in cold blood,"
To the contrary, Brown's confession changes everything, said Richmond
attorney David Hargett, who prepared Turner's clemency petition. The
confession is consistent both with Turner's testimony and with other
evidence in the case, he said.
Brown's and Turner's were two of the most sensational murder cases
ever tried in Virginia Beach. Brown was tried first; Turner, three
months later. There was incessant media coverage.
It took two days to select a jury for Turner's trial. Almost everyone
considered had heard or read something about the case. Of 55
potential jurors questioned, 25 were excused because they had already
decided Turner was guilty.
Turner was sentenced to 82 years 10 more than the 72 years meteed
out to Brown.
"If Brown would have come into court and said something, it might
have had some weight," said Alan Reed, a retired Navy man who served
as jury foreman. "But all we had was Turner sitting there telling
his side of the story. That was it. There was nothing to prove that
his story was true."
Even with a confession, Helen Brown, another juror, said she still
might have reached the same conclusion.
"If he knew, and I'm sure he did, what type of person Billy Joe Brown
was and the way that he had acted previously … I think he should have
been a little bit more aware of what was going on and tried to
protect her," Brown said.
Turner blames his SEAL training for his role in initially hiding the
crime. During training, SEALs who stray more than a few feet from one
another are punished by being tied together with a rope around their
necks or made to carry telephone poles on their backs until they
Others who have gone through the training "know where I'm coming
from," Turner said. "I was reacting to a stressful situation,
panicking, and I was pretty darn young."
At Augusta Correctional Center, a concrete fortress nestled behind
coils of razor wire in the rolling hills west of Staunton, Turner,
now 29, spends his days working out, playing sports and reading in
For several years he delved into theology. Now he's studying Northern
European history, culture and mythology.
Brown is serving his term at Keen Mountain Correctional Center in
Buchanan County. His new found religious beliefs were what prompted
him to accept blame and clear his former SEAL buddy.
It's that change of heart upon which Turner's hope for freedom rides.
Accompanying his clemency petition are dozens of testimonials from
relatives, former teachers and classmates. One is from Folis Jones, a
retired Virginia prison psychologist. In his 23 years of service,
Jones wrote, "I only met two inmates that convinced me they were
innocent. Dustin Turner was one of them."
Three letters are from current and former inmates describing how
Turner helped them improve themselves by tutoring them in English and
Another is from a lifelong Bloomington resident who attended high
school with Turner. When Laresa Ingram read of Brown's confession
last year, she wrote Turner a letter of support. Their correspondence
blossomed into romance, and she recently moved to Charlottesville to
be closer to him.
"I feel very positive about it,'' Ingram said of Turner's quest for
clemency. "I feel like it is going to happen."
Linda Summitt, Turner's mother, tries to be optimistic, too. But she
is tempered by nine years of repeated disappointments.
Summitt, a first- and second-grade reading teacher, lives with her
husband, Larry, in the house Turner grew up in, across the street
from the elementary school he attended in Bloomington.
She and her husband have depleted their retirement funds, double-
mortgaged their home and borrowed money from family and friends to
pay legal bills, which have topped $200,000. She has made the 600-
mile drive to Virginia from Bloomington countless times, visiting her
son and doing legal legwork.
"I have adjusted to many things," Summitt said . "But never
accepted the fact that my son would spend his life in prison for
something he did not do."
In March 2002, while spending spring break with her family in
Florida, Summitt nearly died from a ruptured brain aneurysm. She was
unconscious for a month. When she got home, Turner called with
dramatic news: He had heard through the prison grapevine that Brown
had found religion and was ready to confess.
"I knew that God had spared my life for a reason," Summitt said.
carry me through and see that my son is set free."
She hired a lawyer to take Brown's affidavit. She also secured
corroborating affidavits from two former cellmates to whom Brown had
confessed over the years. But she soon learned that even that wasn't
necessarily enough to open the prison doors. Virginia courts were
still governed by a rule that prohibited introduction of new evidence
in a criminal case beyond a 21-day window after sentencing.
Summitt joined lobbying efforts aimed at getting the rule eased. She
spent three days on the Virginia Beach Oceanfront in the summer of
2003 passing out pamphlets and getting signatures on petitions. She
established a Web site, www.freedusty.com, with an online petition.
In its 2004 session, the General Assembly passed a measure allowing
cases to be reopened based on new evidence. Despite that, Turner's
chances of getting his case reopened are unclear. For now, Summitt's
hopes ride on her son's clemency petition to the governor. With one
year left in his four-year term, Warner has granted 12 pardons. There
has been no indication of how he views Turner's petition.
Whatever happens, Summitt says, she'll keep fighting.
In Tucker, Ga., 500 miles from Bloomington, Delores Evans says she
can identify with Summitt's tenacity.
"Mothers understand another mother's pain," Evans said in an
interview. "I certainly can't put myself in her shoes, but I know
that a mother's heart lies with her child. You're going to do
everything you can to protect them."
But for Jennifer, Evans' only child, nothing can be done.
"Turner's mother can still go to see him. She can still hug his
neck," Evans said, choking back tears. "My daughter had nothing
with putting him there, nor did I. He was there; he's not denying
that. The jury found him guilty.
"He had his chance. He is having his chance now with this petition
for clemency, whereas Jennifer has no second chances.''
Reach Bill Sizemore at 446-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.