FREE DUSTY!

 

Turner's hopes riding on governor
Despite co-defendant's confession, man's freedom is dependent on clemency

By Laura Lane, Herald-Times
June 13, 2004


Dustin Turner, at his sentencing in 1997. Virginian-Pilot Photo.


It's the kind of evidence that when presented in a Perry Mason episode would have brought quick justice for the wrongly accused.

The real killer comes forth and confesses, and the man facing life in prison is set free, supported by a seasoned prison psychologist who believes in his innocence.

But in reality, the half-inch-thick bound petition for clemency detailing another man's confession to the murder Dustin Turner was convicted of may not free him from 82 years in prison.

Turner, a 1993 Bloomington High School South graduate who became a U.S. Navy SEAL, was convicted in Virginia of the 1995 murder of Jennifer Evans, a pre-med student from Georgia who was vacationing with friends in Virginia Beach, Va.

Despite his continuing claim that he did not kill the 21-year-old Emory University student, Turner received an 82-year prison term with no possibility of parole. He has admitted helping his SEAL swim buddy dispose of Evans' body in a park, but is adamant he had no part in killing her.

Last spring, his co-defendant came forth and said he alone killed Evans before Turner could do anything to stop him. Billy Joe Brown confessed to killing Evans in Turner's 1990 Geo Storm. He said Turner tried to pull him away from the victim, but it was too late.

Ironically, the man who confessed to the murder got a prison term a decade shorter than Turner's.

On July 1, a law passed last month by Virginia legislators goes into effect. It overrides a previous law that prohibited new evidence in a criminal case that came to light more than 21 days after the verdict.

The law is not retroactive. Brown's confession came eight years too late.

Turner cannot use it to get a new trial, but his supporters hope the revelation will cause Virginia Gov. Mark Warner to grant executive clemency, a move rarely taken. A pardon from the governor would allow Turner's release from the Augusta Correctional Facility in Craigsville, Va.

The clemency petition filed May 19 states that Brown's confession that he acted alone in killing Evans should result in "a complete vindication" for Turner, whose family has never given up its vigil to get him out of jail.

"The evidence shows that Dustin Turner is innocent," said David Hargett, the Richmond, Va. lawyer now representing Turner. "We certainly believe there is a chance the governor will take action."

Hargett said the Virginia parole board has initiated an investigation into the case.

The clemency petition contains signatures from 732 people from Indiana to Florida to Spain demanding that Turner be set free in light of Brown's confession. It has a section with 21 letters pleading for his release; eight are from former teachers and coaches in Bloomington, a few are from former girlfriends. One was sent by a woman who met Turner's mother in a Virginia church service where she stood up during prayer request time and asked people to pray for her son.

The letter carrying the most weight was written by Francis Folis Jones Sr., a retired psychologist who worked more than two decades for the Virginia Department of Corrections. He met Turner during 1997 and found him to be "one of the most wholesome and honest inmates I dealt with in 23 years of service. And I don't say this lightly."

He said the story Turner told him "over and over" back then was the same as what Brown confessed last spring.

"In my years of service I only met two inmates that convinced me they were innocent," he wrote to the governor. "Dustin Turner was one of them."

Linda Summitt, Turner's mother, has traveled thousands of miles between Indiana and Virginia, helped change the 21-day evidence rule law and suffered a brain aneurysm during the past nine years trying to clear her son's name and free him from jail. "She has been instrumental, and this has taken a great toll on her," Hargett said.

She established a Web site, www.freedusty.com, that includes reams of information about the case, including a 23-page account detailing the night of the murder that she and Turner composed.

The Edgewood Primary School reading teacher is optimistic, like she has always been. But it could be a year or longer before she hears from the governor's office. She encourages friends to write letters to the governor in support of her son's release.

In his own letter, Turner pleads for a future free from prison bars. He writes that he was wrong to help Brown dispose of Evans' body and cover up the murder. He said his training as a Navy SEAL emphasized the importance of never letting down your SEAL partner.

"In no way am I claiming that I made correct decisions on the night of Jennifer's death, because I did not," Turner wrote. "Because of the ingrained sense of loyalty toward my swim buddy I helped him cover up his crime."

During Brown and Turner's trials, the prosecution argued that the two acted in tandem to abduct and kill Evans. If that theory was true, each man could be held responsible for her death.

Summitt said her son, prisoner No. 243975, looks toward the future, confident the governor will grant him clemency. "He is on a high, hopeful that this thing will get turned around," she said. "It's been nine long years."