Very difficult to determine where justice lies in Dusty Turner case

Our opinion | Posted: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 12:00 am

Dusty Turner is serving 82 years in a Virginia prison for his involvement in the 1995 murder of Jennifer Evans, a 21-year-old pre-med student who had been vacationing in Virginia Beach when she was killed.

Turner, a 20-year-old Navy SEAL in training when Evans died, was stationed at Virginia Beach at the time. He and his 23-year-old SEAL swimming buddy, Ohioan Billy Joe Brown, were convicted of her killing the following year.

People here certainly known the story.

Turner is a Bloomington native and Bloomington South grad, a swimmer on South’s swim team. His mother has campaigned since his conviction for her son’s release, fully believing that while Dusty may have been guilty of criminal activity that fateful night — he admitted helping dispose of the victim’s body — he had nothing to do with Evans’ death. The story is current once more with the release of a documentary that calls for his case to be re-examined.

The case is vexing, not only for his mother, but for anyone concerned with justice in America and with gaining full understanding of situations that, at their deepest, are perhaps unknowable.

Turner’s case has been through the labyrinth of the courts. Stories have changed — particularly that of Brown’s, who at first blamed his fellow SEAL for the crime but then years after their convictions, recanted. Recantations are not unusual, but in this case, he swore he was the one who assaulted Evans, his new story exonerating Turner rather than making further claim to Brown’s own innocence. A lower court accepted that story and an appeals panel did the same, seeming to clear the way for Turner to have at least a shot at freedom.

But the full appeals court and the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the conviction in 2011, based on the argument that even if he didn’t kill her, Turner had lured Evans to his car (where she died) with nefarious intent, and so was equally culpable with Brown in the crime.

Unless Virginia’s governor grants clemency, and there’s a petition headed to his desk, it appears Turner will spend what effectively will be the remainder of his life behind bars.

Ironically, his own 82-year sentence is 10 years longer than Brown’s, who is now generally if not universally believed to actually be the one who choked the life from his victim.

Under current Virginia law, even with time off for good behavior Turner will have to serve about 70 of those years, with the gate finally swinging open in 2065. If he were to survive that long, Turner would be 90.

The Evans family, who lost the most precious of all in the world to them, believes strongly that such should be his fate.

If Turner’s clemency plea makes it to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, it may be seeking either a conditional or absolute pardon. An absolute pardon is a claim of complete innocence. The conditional pardon requires only that there be “substantial evidence of extraordinary circumstances” to warrant a sentence reduction or commutation but, cautions the state’s website, cannot be a plea for a substitute judgment.

We’ll never fully understand this case. The SEALs’ code to never abandon a buddy. The specialized training that demands immediate action in crisis, assessment coming later. Is that part of the equation? There’s the killer’s sentence, actually shorter than was meted out to the one who only watched. The late claim of blame that Brown made — what about that and where should it fit? And witnesses told different stories on what Turner was planning for Evans that night.

Was he truly an innocent watching in horror as his drunken and suddenly enraged buddy strangled this almost stranger in the front seat of Turner’s car, still parked in the parking lot of the nightclub they’d just left?

Perhaps there are enough questions, enough extraordinary circumstances, that McDonnell can justify some relief from a sentence to a living death. We hope so.