BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — A military officer who investigated Jennifer Evans’ 1995 murder for the U.S. Navy thinks Dustin Turner is innocent and should be released from prison. So does the daughter of a prosecutor in the case, who says her late father reluctantly pursued the charge against the Bloomington native.
Turner, a Bloomington High School South graduate and swimmer, was a 19-year-old Navy SEAL trainee when he was charged with the Virginia Beach killing. He is now 38 years old, and has served 18 years of his 82-year sentence.
In a last-ditch appeal to outgoing Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Turner supporters are pushing for a conditional pardon that would set Turner free. There’s a pardon petition on the governor’s desk, and he has until midnight Saturday to decide if he will grant the request.
Two electronic billboards, one along Interstate 95 and another on Interstate 64 in Richmond, ask McDonnell to let Turner go free. A group called Virginians for Judicial Reform is paying the $300 daily cost.
Wednesday morning, Bloomington resident Linda Summitt called McDonnell and said, “I am asking you to please pardon my son, Dusty Turner. He has served 18 ½ years in prison for a crime which he did not commit,” she said to his answering machine. “I am begging you to please read the clemency petition yourself, watch the documentary, read Galatians 6:9. And do not forget the Eighth Amendment. Truth and justice should count, not just the law. Thank you.”
Now, she waits, for a phone call from David Hargett, the attorney who for nearly two decades has fought for Turner’s freedom. Summitt has endured disappointments through the years regarding her son’s situation, with the denial of appeals and a writ of innocence she hoped would return her son home to Bloomington.
“There is always hope that somewhere along the line, some year, of a new law or a new governor or a change of mind,” Summitt said Thursday. “Or maybe they will go back to parole in Virginia. Something.”
Turner’s SEAL partner, Billy Joe Brown, also was convicted in 1996 of the murder. But in 2003, he confessed that he alone killed Evans, strangling her as she sat in the passenger seat of Turner’s car. He backed up Turner’s account that he only helped bury the body, and swore that was the extent of Turner’s involvement.
But under Virginia law, by being present when Brown killed Evans and by participating in hiding her body, Turner was just as guilty as Brown, whose jail sentence was a decade less than Turner’s.
John Floyd was a staff officer for the Naval Special Warfare Group in 1997, assigned to investigate Evans’ murder and SEAL training practices after her family threatened a lawsuit against the Navy.
Floyd, who reviewed all of the documents and reports in the case but never met Turner or Brown, said he was convinced Turner was not guilty of murder. He said Turner witnessed a sudden and brutal killing and was scared, and that he panicked and went along with Brown’s instructions from there.
“He’d just seen the woman murdered in front of him, and he made a very bad decision, possibly fearing for his own life, and I think he kept quiet intending to come forward later and tell the truth,” Floyd said from his Florida home Thursday afternoon.
Eight days after the murder, Turner told authorities what had happened that night after he and Evans walked hand in hand out of the Bayou Bar to his car.
“I wake up sometimes thinking about it, or I will be driving down the road and it will pop into my head,” Floyd said. “We all have things happen in our lives that we know were wrong, but we couldn’t do anything about. This sits unresolved in my subconscious. An injustice.”
On Dec. 29, Turner’s mother received a phone call from a Virginia Beach woman named Ann Marie Riggs. Her father, Albert Alberi, was a prosecutor in both Turner’s and Brown’s trials. He died 11 years ago.
Riggs contacted Summitt after seeing a video of her pleading with McDonnell to issue a pardon for her son. “We talked for two hours, and she told me her father never believed Dusty was guilty. She said he did not want to prosecute him, but that he was a state employee just doing his job and that he did his job well. She went to the trials, and told me how what happened during the day was very different from what her father told her at home at night. All this time, he was feeling remorse. She said Dusty has served enough time for his part in this.”
Riggs told Gov. McDonnell the same thing, asking that he grant the conditional pardon that would free Turner from Virginia’s Green Rock Correctional Center.
In a letter to McDonnell, Turner pleaded for his freedom.
“My life was forever changed on the night of June 19, 1995. Billy Joe Brown took the precious life of Jennifer Evans in a drunken rage. I helped to cover up this horrible crime and did not report it to the authorities for eight days,” he wrote. “I often dream of returning to the home that I left when I joined the military, being back with those who love me, attending Indiana University, perhaps having a family of my own.
“I have kept hope in my heart alive that I will one day be given the chance to breathe free air.”