The Man the Navy Left Behind

I’ve never met Dustin “Dusty” Turner. The only thing we have in common is we both live in gated communities, though his is behind the walls of a Virginia prison.

Turner is a convicted murderer serving an 82 year sentence. He’s been there a very long time already — 23 years.

I have a sense of déjà vu contemplating his status. In the 1970s, I tried my damnedest as a reporter to liberate the longest serving prisoner in the Tennessee system, Ira Leighton.

I failed.

Leighton had killed a county sheriff who attacked him in his cell. I examined the court proceedings, interviewed Leighton and talked to the few jurors who were still alive.

I met with the then governor, Winfield Dunn. He was polite, but stone-faced.

Many felt Leighton had received a raw deal and that he was only defending himself. However, the politics at the time ran contrary to my sense of righting what I felt was a wrong.

Fast forward more than four decades. I had moved on from being an idealistic 20-something newsman to being an idealistic septuagenarian, and still, at times, tilting at windmills.

My connection to Dusty Turner is through a documentary filmmaker, J.D. Leete, who has put Turner’s story on film, selling downloads on Amazon. It is a fascinating account.

Turner, a former junior deacon in his church in Indiana and an Eagle scout, has served more than half his life behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit — or did he?

That’s a matter of opinion, debate and argument. I have interviewed sufficient numbers of people in prison to know that, as inmates say, they are all innocent and their circumstances are not black and white.

Generally, I am uber skeptical of their stories.

Turner certainly wasn’t guiltless in the death of 21-year-old Jennifer Evans in June 1995. At the time, Turner had just completed his Navy SEAL training and was due to be shipped out to Central America.

Turner and Ms. Evans had met that evening at a Virginia Beach nightspot. She followed him to his car to wait for friends. Dusty was in the front driver’s seat, and she on the passenger side.

Unexpectedly, Turner’s SEAL buddy, Billy Joe Brown, climbed into the backseat. Brown was visibly drunk and started teasing Jennifer, playing with her hair. She slapped his hand away.

Brown grabbed her neck and snapped it. She was already dead as Turner furiously attempted to wrest Brown’s hands away.. Brown yelled at Turner to just drive, and in a panic, he did.

They disposed of her body, and went back to base quarters. Turner, 20 at the time, had choices. He made all the wrong ones.

It had been drummed into Dusty that a Navy SEAL always sticks by his team buddy. The more assertive Brown had been assigned to Turner by superiors, the logic being it would toughen Turner up.

Several days later Turner confessed and took authorities to Ms. Evan’s body. He and Brown were charged with murder, though it was years later before Brown confessed he was the one who had killed Ms. Evans and that Turner was innocent.

The question here is not whether Turner was complicit as an accessory. He most definitely was. The question is whether he should continue to be jailed after two decades with no possibility parole.

In the words of Turner’s mom, Linda Summitt: “Dusty is the type of boy any mother would be proud to have. He is the type person who would have died in battle to save others and for his country.”

Ms. Summitt has spent her life savings on lawyers and appeals and in petitioning various Virginia governors for a pardon. The appeal is currently before Gov. Ralph Northam.

The politics — as in the Ira Leighton case in Tennessee — argue against Northam granting a pardon.

Locked up these many years, Dusty, now 43, has been a model prisoner. He improved the prison system’s environmental management procedures and became involved in a dog training program to help people with disabilities. i

That one youthful mistake was a life-defining one, hardly explainable outside the culture of the Navy SEALS, though even there, no one would suggest the buddy system extends to being an accomplice in a crime.

The Navy immediately distanced itself from Turner’s plight.

The story of Dusty Turner is both complex and simple at the same time. Filmmaker Leete, who is a Navy retiree, has spent the last decade working on the documentary.

In his view Turner should have been freed when the real killer, Turner’s colleague in SEAL training, confessed to the crime. However, a high court over-turned a lower court’s decision to free him.

Under Virginia law at the time, Turner has no possibility of parole, only a gubernatorial pardon. This injustice in the law has since been corrected, but too late to help Turner.

Leete’s film is called “Target of Opportunity: The Navy SEALS and the Murder of Jennifer Evans”. It makes a compelling case why Turner should be freed.

I was impressed by Leete’s dedication to both craft and cause.

A written narrative can’t do the story justice. Buy the download, and decide for yourself. If you feel the same as I do, write Gov. Northam that Dusty Turner deserves his freedom.

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Photo: Back in the 1970s when Willard was writing about Ira Leighton, the longest serving prisoner in the Tennessee prison system

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I am a novelist, painter, songwriter and essayist but my day job is elevating the profile of authors, entertainers and business executives.

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