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updated: 6/8/2013 4:06 PM

Film backs former SEAL trainee's innocence claim

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  • Associated Press/July 8, 2008Former Navy SEAL trainee Dustin Turner listens to a question during an interview at the Powhatan Correctional Facility in Powhatan, Va.

    Associated Press/July 8, 2008Former Navy SEAL trainee Dustin Turner listens to a question during an interview at the Powhatan Correctional Facility in Powhatan, Va.

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. -- The courts have spoken, and former Navy SEAL trainee Dustin Turner remains locked up for a 1995 slaying that another man has confessed to committing alone.

Not content to let the Virginia Supreme Court have the final word, a Richmond filmmaker and former Navy special warfare operator is putting the final touches on a documentary contending Turner is innocent and portraying the state's judicial system as either flawed or outright corrupt.

"Dusty's story has been exactly the same from the first time I interviewed him," J.D. Leete said in an interview. "I have no doubt he's telling the truth."

Leete makes the case for Turner in "Target of Opportunity: The US Navy SEALs and the Murder of Jennifer Evans." The documentary will be shown for the first time at a Richmond theater Thursday night. A screening is set for Turner's hometown of Bloomington, Ind., on Aug. 4.

Turner is serving an 82-year prison sentence for the slaying of Evans, a vacationing 21-year-old Emory University pre-med student he met at a Virginia Beach nightclub. 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 and said he alone strangled Evans. A judge found Brown's confession credible, and a divided panel of the Virginia Court of Appeals exonerated Turner. But the panel's decision was overturned by the full appeals court and the Virginia Supreme Court, exhausting all of Turner's appeals. A clemency petition is pending with Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Leete said his primary goal is to educate the public about what really happened on June 19, 1995, in the parking lot of The Bayou nightclub and how the case was handled by police, prosecutors and the courts. He said all the evidence supports the story Turner has told from day one: that a drunken and belligerent Brown climbed into the backseat of Turner's 1990 Geo Storm, reached over the front passenger seat and strangled Evans. Turner admits helping Brown dispose of Evans' body in a Newport News park.

"If people think he should be in prison for the rest of his life for driving away, so be it," Leete said. He would be happy if his film prompted the public to rally behind the clemency bid -- an outcome Turner's mother, Linda Summitt, also would welcome.

"I hope it will help people see the injustices that went on during the trial and after the trial, and how things were turned around to fit the needs of the judicial system," Summitt said.

Evans' mother, however, views the documentary as a slanted denial of what the courts have determined to be the truth.

"The Virginia Supreme Court ruling was such a relief to have behind us, and we hoped and prayed it would be smooth sailing from here on out but I guess that's too much to ask for," Delores Evans of Tucker, Ga., said in a telephone interview. She said that she turned down an invitation to be interviewed for the documentary because she expected it would portray Turner as a victim.

"There was a precious, bright woman with a bright future ahead of her, but they don't care to mention that," she said. "That's the real tragedy."

The Virginia attorney general's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Prosecutors originally contended that Turner and Brown drove Evans to an undisclosed location with the intention of having a sexual threesome and killed her when she refused. Evidence at trial consisted largely of Turner's and Brown's conflicting statements and testimony by others who were at The Bayou that night. A SEAL testified that Turner told him about plans for group sex. But a friend of Evans said the victim never mentioned Turner wanted sex, and another woman testified that Turner had asked her to give Brown a ride home.

After Brown confessed to killing Evans in the parking lot, lawyers for the state argued that it didn't matter that he alone did the strangling -- that Turner walked the woman to the car with the intent of sexually assaulting her, an "abduction by deception" that made him equally culpable for the murder.

The state's two appellate courts embraced that theory, rejecting Turner's claim that he was guilty only of being an accessory after the fact -- a crime punishable by up to a year in jail.

Leete, whose Navy jobs entailed communicating with SEAL teams and delivering them to and from their targets, said it was not surprising that Turner reacted the way he did when Evans was killed. SEALs are trained never to leave their swim buddy behind.

"That training -- shoot, move and communicate -- is what they live by," Leete said. "So he's sitting there and his buddy is yelling, `Go, go, go, get out of here!' Instinct would be get out of there and then evaluate the situation."

Turner eventually led authorities to Evans' body and blamed Brown for the killing. Brown told police Evans was already dead when he got to the car. In his subsequent confession, he said he lied because he was angry with Turner for telling authorities what happened. Brown said he was confessing to get right with God, and he didn't care whether anyone believed him or whether his testimony helped Turner.

Leete, who has been working on the film for five years, screened a preliminary cut of the documentary at a festival in Amsterdam in 2011. Most of the questions he got were about Virginia's judicial system so he revised the film to delve more into that aspect.

"When it first started it was more about how this could happen," said Dave Sullivan, a northern Virginia automobile service manager who helped finance Leete's $250,000 film. "Everywhere he went he would pull a layer of the onion back and there was another rotten layer underneath. He's been obsessed with getting the truth."

The documentary looks at police tactics and the handling of items from the crime scene, including car seats that police destroyed sometime after the trial. It also highlights Virginia appellate courts dominated by former prosecutors, including the man who prosecuted Turner, and the former acting attorney general who appealed the panel ruling that exonerated him. Those two judges did not rule on Turner's appeals.

"I hope this film will make people aware of what went on and the politics of the justice system in Virginia," said Matt Salzberg of New York, a writer and co-producer of the film. "It's the epitome of the old-boy system."

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