RICHMOND — The Virginia Supreme Court unanimously refused Friday to exonerate a former Navy SEAL trainee in the abduction and murder of a woman he met at a Virginia Beach nightclub in 1995, ruling that another man's confession that he alone strangled the victim was insufficient to prove Dustin Turner was innocent.
Turner, 36, of Bloomington, Ind., is serving an 82-year prison sentence for the slaying of 21-year-old Emory University student Jennifer Evans. Another former SEAL trainee, Billy Joe Brown of Dayton, Ohio, was convicted in a separate trial and is serving 72 years.
Brown originally blamed Turner for the killing, but changed his story in 2003. Saying he had become a Christian and wanted to set the record straight, Brown claimed in sworn affidavits that he alone strangled Miss Evans and all Turner did was help him dispose of her body at a Newport News park.
Turner filed for a "writ of actual innocence." A circuit court judge found Brown's confession credible, and a Virginia Court of Appeals panel ruled 2-1 that Brown should be exonerated because no rational jury or judge would have convicted him had they had access to the new information. The full appeals court reversed that decision, however, and Turner appealed to the Supreme Court.
The justices agreed with the full appeals court that a jury could have concluded that Turner abducted Evans through deception with the intent of sexually assaulting her, which would make him as responsible as Brown for the subsequent murder.
"The fact that Brown now confesses that he acted alone in restraining and choking Evans does not absolve Turner of his guilt," Justice Donald Lemons wrote.
Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II said in a written statement that he was gratified by the decision and that his thoughts were with the family of Miss Evans, "whose life was tragically ended before she could realize her bright promise."
Delores Evans said in a telephone interview from her home near Atlanta that the ruling brought justice for her daughter, but no sense of closure for the family.
"Neither this decision nor any of the previous decisions will bring Jennifer back," Ms. Evans said. She added that the years of uncertainty as Turner pursued the innocence claim had been "very emotionally draining" as she and other family members attended every court hearing.
"Anytime there was debate going on about innocence or lack thereof, Jennifer no longer had a voice but we could at least represent her there," Ms. Evans said.
Turner's mother, Linda Summitt, was devastated by the ruling.
"Dusty was a very young man who made a mistake, but does that mean that he should spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime that he didn't commit?" Ms. Summitt wrote in an e-mail. "I have been on an emotional roller coaster for 16 years and 3 months, and especially the last three years. Up and down in this judicial system. If they would just rule on the facts and not the technicalities there would have been a different answer."
Turner's attorney, David Hargett, did not return telephone and email messages.
In the court's opinion, Justice Lemons noted that Brown had given several conflicting accounts of the slaying, including two signed affidavits that differed in how Miss Evans died. The one Turner submitted for his appeal said Miss Evans died almost instantly. In the second one, Brown said Miss Evans briefly "revived" and he had to choke her a second time.
Prosecutors have claimed from the beginning that Brown and Turner lured Miss Evans out of the nightclub intent on having a three-way sexual encounter and killed her in Turner's car when she resisted.
Turner claims that he and Miss Evans were sitting in the front seat of the car when a drunken and belligerent Brown climbed into the back seat, reached over and strangled the woman.
In the affidavit that was the basis for Turner's appeal, Brown said: "We were sitting there talking and the next thing you know I reached up and choked Jennifer. I did this on my own without any prior discussion with Dustin Turner. He did not encourage me in any way and in fact, I remember one instance while I was choking Jennifer, Dustin trying to pull my hands away."