INTERVIEW: Appeals court rejects ex-SEAL's claim of innocence in murder

By Ryan Nobles - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) –  The fate of a Navy SEAL is in question. A jury convicted Justin Turner of murder back in 1995. Now his accomplice is coming forward to admit Turner had nothing to do with the crime.

In 1995, college student Jennifer Evans went to a Virginia Beach bar with friends and met Dustin Turner.

According to testimony, the two chatted and went to his car where Billy Joe Brown soon joined them.

Brown testified he snapped and choked Evans to death as Turner unsuccessfully tried to pull his arm away. It's hoped this new confession from Brown will help Turner get out of prison.

"I'm here to glorify Jesus Christ by telling the truth, if that helps Dusty, great. You know, if you believe me, fine, if you don't, you know, I'm not going to be hurt by it one bit. He's the one that's going to be hurt by it. That's my attitude," Brown confessed.

But this week, the Virginia Court of Appeals rejected Turner's claim of innocence. The court ruled Brown's confession was not enough proof.

Both Brown and Turner pointed fingers at each other during their trials and Turner does admit to helping Brown dispose of the body.

Legal analyst Steve Benjamin joined NBC12 to talk about the appeals court ruling.

We talked a little bit about this before we went on the air. Virginia has a 21-day law which essentially says unless there's a really compelling piece of evidence, a murder case is done, we're done talking about it after 21 days.

Steve: That's exactly right. That's something very few people know. Twenty-one days after conviction, that case is over, its final, done, and that means, Ryan, that even if you can prove your innocence on Day 22, with new evidence, you've just discovered, the courts are closed to you. And that's always been the law in Virginia until earlier in this past decade when Virginia created an exception if you discovered DNA. If you discover DNA that proves you're innocent beyond any shadow of a doubt, you can go back into court and make your case. There was some concern, though, because DNA exists only in very few cases and what if you came up with some other type of evidence.

Ryan: Like in this case.

Steve: Like recanted testimony, yeah, exactly right, that proves your innocence. Shouldn't a Virginia citizen have the right to go back into court and try to prove his innocence? And so a statute was created which was at work in this case. What happened here is these two Navy SEALs were convicted of a murder back in 1996, and then in 2002, one of them confessed that he himself acted alone. And so the other guy, who had been sentenced to life, filed a writ for actual innocence. He said 'I can prove my innocence with this guy's recantation.' A circuit court held a hearing and found that the recantation was credible. A panel of the Virginia Court of Appeals found that the evidence was clear and convincing, and -- convincing and that jury, if they had heard in recantation, this truthful testimony, would have convicted this other guy.

Ryan: Right.

Steve: And so they vacated the conviction. What happened this week, the state had appealed, and the full court of appeals this week said, no, we don't agree. They took 66 pages to discuss all that, and they reinstated the conviction.

Ryan: Right. So now it will go to the Supreme Court.

Steve: It will.

Ryan: And this will have far reaching implications beyond just this case. The Attorney General has come in and said he agrees with the initial ruling. Basically we're going to try and determine what type of evidence is okay.

Steve: If any.

Ryan: That is outside the scope of this 21-day rule.

Steve: If any besides DNA. We're all familiar with the expression, "The truth shall set you free." As this case illustrates, that's not the case in Virginia. Ultimately it will be up to the Virginia Supreme Court to decide what type of evidence, if any, besides DNA can be strong enough for someone to prove their innocence.

Ryan: Okay. Steve, obviously a very important case and we'll talk more about it as we get closer to the ruling by the Supreme Court.

Steve: That's right, Ryan.

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