Free Dusty Turner
The full story
By the summer of 2021, Dustin “Dusty” Turner will have been imprisoned for 26 years. He was 20 years old when he was incarcerated in 1995 for the crimes committed by another man.
Dusty was a graduate of BUDs/UDT SEAL training and was assigned to SEAL Team IV in Norfolk, VA where he was to complete his final phase of training before earning his SEAL Trident.
The fateful events on the evening of June 19,1995 would forever change the lives of so many people. That night, the tragic murder of Jennifer Evans left both the Evans family and Dusty’s family to begin a life of permanently altered arcs. But for the cruel actions of one man, Billy Brown, Dusty’s “swim buddy” throughout BUD’s, two lives could have been lived fully, happily, and for their families so much pain could have been avoided.
Because of the totality of evidence that has since come to light, there are very few people who still believe that Dusty actually committed the crimes that he was convicted of: the abduction and murder of Jennifer Evans. Indeed, the man who killed Ms. Evans, Billy Brown, confessed to these crimes in 1999. However, neither Dusty nor the public became aware of the truth until 2002, 6 years after Dusty’s 82 year sentence was imposed.
Dusty’s journey to fight for his own innocence began with the submission of a petition for a Writ of Actual Innocence under Virginia law. The Writ hearing was granted in 2008, 9 years after Brown’s confession and 13 years after his original sentencing. This statute under Virginia law is intended to correct sentencing injustices by allowing new evidence to be brought to light. It is a claim by the person who has been convicted of a felony and must meet very stringent criteria.
In the hearing, Billy Brown recanted the testimony he had offered during the original investigation and trial and presented in chilling detail a confession of the facts that laid bare his own guilt for Jennifer’s murder. At the conclusion of the evidentiary hearing, held in the same court that convicted Dusty, The Honorable Frederick B. Lowe made the following critical ruling:
“This court determines that Mr. Brown’s recanted testimony is credible in his assertion that he testified falsely at his own trial. This court determines that Mr. Brown testified falsely at his own trial as to a material fact in the case. This court further finds that Mr. Brown’s recantation of his earlier testimony was unknown and was unavailable to the petitioner in this proceeding, Mr. Turner, at the time of his conviction and at the time his conviction became final. And this court finally finds that Mr. Brown is credible in his assertion that he acted independently in murdering the victim and that Mr. Turner had no role in the murder or in the restraining of the victim”.
The details Brown shared aligned to those Dusty shared under oath in his own unwavering testimony and in a majority decision, it was decided by a 3-Judge panel of the Virginia Court of Appeals that Dusty is “actually innocent” and should be set free.
In a devastating blow to the panel’s ruling, the findings were appealed and his release halted. Shockingly, instead of returning to his family, Dusty’s previously approved petition was reversed. In 2011, now 3 more years after the appellate court’s findings, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld this reversal after being presented with a novel legal theory:
“That a jury “could believe” that Dusty abducted Jennifer by “deception””. This new theory was invented 14 years after the crime in response to one word in the ruling from the same court that convicted Dusty”
It was later realized that a consideration of what a jury ‘could‘ believe was entirely too vague and allowed for any possible theory to be invented. In 2013 and again in 2020, Virginia legislators made significant changes to the review of potential wrongful convictions in actual innocence writs. Despite these “fundamental changes”, however, Dusty is not permitted to file another petition. His legal remedies are exhausted.
Attorney David Hargett has devoted many years of effort in an attempt to right Dusty’s conviction. Mary Kelly Tate, Director of The Institute of Actual Innocence of the University of Richmond School of Law, has been a staunch advocate for Dusty as well. Students of the University of Richmond School of Law have likewise been involved.
Their goal is to help show Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam, that Dusty is innocent of these charges and that clemency is appropriate. This remedy is requested in light of material facts not brought to light in Billy Brown’s original testimony. Governor Northam’s four-year term will conclude in January of 2022 and it is expected that he will make a decision on Dusty’s petition for clemency prior to leaving office. Dusty’s petition has been pending since 2013, longer than any known petition in the history of Virginia.
Now we are praying that Governor Ralph Northam take a very serious look at Dusty’s petition and will mercifully grant him the clemency that he so desperately deserves; 26 years for a crime that another man committed, confessed to, and whose confession was ruled credible, is clearly unjust.
Dusty continues to keep a positive attitude and tries to be productive every day. He was honored to give the commencement speech to the graduating class at Greensville Correctional Center in October 2019. These were men who achieved the GED and who graduated from a vocational class. His speech focused on what it means to be personally accountable and the freedom to choose one’s own attitude, regardless of circumstances. In 26 years, Dusty has been a model inmate. His attitude and former SEAL training keep him focused on being the very best version of himself under the most difficult of circumstances.