RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Eighteen years ago, Ann Marie Riggs watched with admiration as her father laid out the evidence and elicited the witness testimony that sent a former Navy SEAL trainee to prison for the slaying of a vacationing Georgia college student. Now, she's campaigning for the man's release.
Riggs, the daughter of former Virginia Beach chief deputy prosecutor Albert Alberi, said in a telephone interview that she has asked Gov. Bob McDonnell to grant Dustin Turner's clemency request before his term ends at noon Saturday. Acting on clemency and pardon requests — or choosing to pass them along to the next administration — is traditionally one of the last things Virginia's governor does before leaving office.
Turner's petition is one of about 10 still on McDonnell's desk. The governor said in an interview Wednesday that he was still reviewing them.
Turner, 38, of Bloomington, Ind., is serving an 82-year prison sentence for the 1995 slaying of Jennifer Evans, a 21-year-old Emory University pre-med student he met in a Virginia Beach bar. Another former SEAL trainee, Billy Joe Brown of Dayton, Ohio, also 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 Evans and that all Turner did was help him dispose of her body at a Newport News park. Nevertheless, Turner's bids for exoneration in the courts have failed, leaving his fate in McDonnell's hands.
"This governor is the right one to do it," said Riggs, who said she has known McDonnell since he and Alberi worked together in the prosecutor's office. "He knows all the players, he knows all the people involved in this case, he knew all the defense attorneys. That's the key."
She also noted that McDonnell's political future has been diminished by ongoing state and federal investigations into gifts and loans he received from a Virginia business executive, so he need not worry about any political backlash.
"That's one way of looking at it — that without the possibility of some sort of political repercussions, it makes the decision easier," said Turner's attorney, David Hargett. "But I would not suggest that will be a driving factor. I think it's going to come down to, is this the right decision?"
Hargett said he was unsure how much influence Riggs' support might have on the governor's decision, but he was glad that her involvement and other measures — including two billboards funded by Virginians for Judicial Reform championing Turner's cause — are keeping the case in the public eye.
Turner's mother, Linda Summitt, said she appreciates Riggs' support.
"She's really a wonderful lady, and everything she's talked about has been very heartfelt," Summitt said in a telephone interview Thursday. "I'm thankful that people are finally making the decision to do the right thing. I know she's going to get a lot of flak."
Riggs, who attended the trials of both Brown and Turner, said her father believed he was doing the right thing at the time because "Billy Joe Brown didn't tell the truth until later." Alberi, who later became a general district court judge, died in 2004.
According to Riggs, her father always said the case was circumstantial. He said it turned in the prosecution's favor when defense attorneys put Turner on the stand, subjecting him to grueling cross-examination, Riggs recalled.
"Before that, I don't think he believed he could get a murder conviction," she said.
Riggs said that the more she has looked into the case since Brown's confession, the more convinced she has become that an injustice was done. She said that if her father were alive today, she believes he would be careful about what he said publicly but would privately support her decision and join her in making calls on Turner's behalf.
Turner has maintained his innocence from the beginning but acknowledges being guilty of accessory after the fact — a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail — for helping Brown hide the woman's body.
Prosecutors claimed that Brown and Turner lured Evans out of the nightclub intent on having a three-way sexual encounter and killed her in Turner's car when she resisted.
According to Turner, he and 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 an affidavit recanting his original account of the slaying, Brown said Turner tried to pull his hands away while he was choking Evans.