Ex-Navy SEAL trainee has murder conviction overturned
Richmond, Va. - An ex-Navy SEAL trainee had his murder and abduction convictions overturned Tuesday after spending 13 years in prison for killing a Georgia college student who was vacationing in Virginia.
A divided Virginia Court of Appeals panel granted Dustin Turner's request for a writ of actual innocence, vacating his conviction of murder and abduction with intent to defile in the 1995 death of 21-year-old Emory University student Jennifer Evans.
Turner is the first person in Virginia to get a murder conviction overturned under a 2004 law that allows nonbiological evidence of innocence to be considered more than 21 days after sentencing.
Turner, 34, of Bloomington, Ind., is serving an 82-year sentence for killing Evans in his parked car outside a Virginia Beach nightclub in 1995. Another trainee, Billy Joe Brown, changed his story to say that he alone killed Evans.
"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 ruling stated.
The Attorney General's Office has two weeks to ask for the full court to make a decision or a month to appeal the ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court. If the attorney general does not protest the ruling, Turner would be released from Powhatan Correctional Center.
Turner's attorney and mother said they were cautiously optimistic about Tuesday's ruling.
"We're very pleased, and we like our chances moving forward, but at this point we're not exactly sure what forward will be," Turner's attorney David Hargett said.
David Clementson, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said only that officials there are reviewing the opinion.
Hargett said he expected the attorney general to appeal the decision.
"The commonwealth's job more or less is to fight to keep convictions on the books," Hargett said. "They fought it this long, I don't know why this decision would change their minds, but it's certainly possible."
Turner's mother, Linda Summit, said the first thing she did when she found out about the decision was to drop to her knees and pray.
"I've had to adjust to many, many things but I haven't lost my hope or my faith," she said.
Summit said Turner was excited, "but he knows we still have to wait for the rest of the decisions to be made."
Turner met Evans, of Tucker, Ga., at a Virginia Beach nightclub in June 1995. He claims they were sitting in the front seat of his car talking when a drunken and belligerent Brown got into the back seat and reached around to strangle Evans.
Brown, now serving a 72-year prison term, signed a sworn statement in 2003 saying he alone killed Evans. At first the confession did Turner no good because state law required any newly discovered non-DNA evidence to be submitted within 21 days of sentencing. The 2004 law eliminated that deadline, allowing Turner to pursue his claim in court.
Last year, a circuit court judge found Brown's confession credible, putting the matter before the appeals court.
In her dissent, Judge Cleo Powell said Turner was partially responsible for Evans' death because he deceived her into leaving the club with him so that he could have sex with her, then after her death he drove to an isolated area and helped Brown dispose of Evans' partially unclothed body.
"Turner's callous disregard for Evans, displayed after her murder, is consistent with a finding that he intended to defile her before she was murdered," Powell wrote.
The appeals court found Turner guilty of being an accessory after the fact for helping conceal Evans' body. A hearing is set to determine his punishment for that crime, a misdemeanor that has a maximum punishment of one year in jail.
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