FREE DUSTY!

Jury foreman supports pardon for convicted ex-Navy SEAL
By BILL SIZEMORE, The Virginian-Pilot
© May 7, 2005 Used by permission

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Dustin Turner, the ex-Navy SEAL trainee seeking a pardon in the 1995 slaying of a college student in Virginia Beach, has received a boost from the foreman of the jury that sentenced him to 82 years in prison.

In a letter to Gov. Mark R. Warner’s office, the foreman wrote that a majority of the jury believed that Turner was innocent of the murder and was guilty only of helping his co-defendant, Billy Joe Brown, cover it up.

In a sworn statement two years ago, Brown admitted committing the murder with no help from Turner. Largely on the basis of Brown’s confession, Turner petitioned Warner for a pardon last year.

“I do feel the majority of the jury felt that Dustin was innocent of participating in any way with the murder,” jury foreman Alan J. Reed wrote in an April 2 letter to Warner’s legal counselor. “I do support any action taken on behalf of Dustin Turner. In the hearts of the jury, I am sure they would say that he has spent enough time in prison and justice has been served.”

Turner, 30, and Brown, 32, have been behind bars for nearly 10 years for the choking death of Jennifer Evans, a pre-medical student from suburban Atlanta who was visiting Virginia Beach on summer vacation. The two men were SEAL “swim buddies” nearing the end of their training for the Navy’s elite commando corps at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base.

Both initially denied any knowledge of the slaying. Nine days after Evans disappeared from an Oceanfront nightspot, Turner led police to her decomposed body in a wooded Newport News park. He admitted helping Brown dispose of the body, but he said Brown alone was the killer. Brown, in turn, blamed Turner.

The two men were convicted by separate juries in two highly publicized trials, Brown first and Turner three months later. Brown was sentenced to 72 years, Turner 82.

Reed, the jury foreman in Turner’s case, wrote in his letter to Warner’s office that the jurors were confused and frustrated because they couldn’t get answers to questions that came up during their deliberations.

“I feel some jury members felt frustrated in that their desire for justice was being taken from them and that frustration was transferred to Dustin Turner knowing full well his sentence was greater” than that of Brown, Reed wrote.

Twice during the trial, the jury sent notes out to the judge asking questions. During the guilt-or-innocence phase, they sought clarification of their instructions. During the sentencing phase, they asked if the sentences on the two charges against Turner – murder and abduction – would run concurrently or consecutively.

Both times, they were told the judge couldn’t answer their questions.

Reed also said the jurors wanted to factor parole into their decision, but were unsure of the status of parole in Virginia. The state had abolished parole in 1994, so Turner’s sentence amounts to life in prison.

Turner’s attorney argued that his client was guilty only of being an accessory after the fact, a misdemeanor punishable by no more than a year in jail. Since he had already served that much time before his trial, such a verdict would have resulted in his immediate release.

“We walked back in there and somebody said, 'Do you understand what the judge just said? He walks out with us,’” Reed, a Navy retiree, said in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot last year. “And nobody wanted that. So our hands were kind of tied. We thought he needed some punishment.

“We wanted some options and we didn’t have any. We went into this thing blind. … A lot of us on the jury were very disappointed with the system that we went through.”

A spokesman for Warner said Turner’s clemency petition is still under consideration. The governor’s term ends in January.

Reach Bill Sizemore at (757) 446-2276 or bill.sizemore@pilotonline.com

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