June 30, 2010
The Virginia Court of Appeals rejected a former Navy SEAL trainee's claim of innocence in the abduction and murder of a Georgia college student Tuesday, ruling that another man's confession failed to prove that Dustin Turner was not also involved.
The 8-1 ruling reversed a decision by a three-judge panel of the same court, which ruled last August that Turner should be exonerated based on Billy Joe Brown's statement that he alone killed Jennifer Evans outside a Virginia Beach nightclub in 1995. Turner's lawyer, David Hargett, said he will appeal Tuesday's decision to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Turner was the first person convicted of murder in Virginia to be granted a "writ of actual innocence" under a 2004 law allowing inmates to present new evidence other than DNA after sentencing. The full appeals court, however, said Turner failed to show that no rational judge or jury would have convicted Turner had the new evidence been presented at trial.
Evans' mother, Delores Evans of Tucker, Ga., said she was pleased with the ruling, which came two days after the 15th anniversary of the day her daughter's body was found in a Newport News park. However, her happiness was tempered by the knowledge that another court battle lies ahead.
"There's just no rest," she said. "God has helped heal my broken heart, but there will always be that empty spot. It keeps getting reopened - the wound does - every time one of these court appeals comes up."
Hargett said he was "surprised and disappointed" by the ruling but that he looked forward to taking the case to the Virginia Supreme Court. He said he expected the court to hear the case in November or January.
Turner, of Bloomington, Ind., is serving an 82-year prison term for the slaying of Jennifer Evans, a 21-year-old Emory University premed student who was vacationing in Virginia Beach. Turner claims that Evans died instantly when Brown, another Navy SEAL trainee from Dayton, Ohio, strangled her as the three sat in Turner's car.
Turner has admitted helping Brown dispose of Evans' body, which Hargett says makes his client guilty of nothing more than being an accessory after the fact - a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
Brown, who is serving 72 years, testified at his trial that Evans was already dead when he got into the car. He now says he lied because he was angry with Turner for cooperating with authorities.