Friday Night Phone Call Changes Direction of a Decades-Old Child Murder Case

July 2, 2024 By Melissa Castro Wyatt, mwyatt@law.virginia.edu Melissa Castro Wyatt, mwyatt@law.virginia.edu

Challenging a murder conviction is part science, some gumshoeing, a lot of law and a hefty dose of psychoanalysis, as University of Virginia School of Law professor Deirdre Enright knows well. Enright spent 13 years running the Innocence Project at UVA Law before stepping aside to create a new clinic in 2021.

To free an earlier Innocence Project client from prison, Enright dug deep into the life and mind of a deceased serial killer – who was not her client – to establish his genetic composition, his physical whereabouts, his modus operandi and his fetishes.

The information she’s collected on the known serial killer, Richard Marc Evonitz, is enough to fill dozens of file cabinets and raise questions about the guilt of an aging couple accused of killing their 5-year-old son, Justin Lee Turner, decades ago.

On June 7, a judge dismissed murder charges against Victor Lee Turner and Megan R. Turner “with prejudice,” meaning the couple cannot be charged for the same crime again, citing a lack of new evidence to support the state’s newly filed charges and paucity of remaining eyewitnesses 35 years after the crime. 

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Months earlier, Enright sent a letter to the Turners’ lawyer telling him about Evonitz, who killed himself in 2002 before police could arrest him. The serial killer has been matched to three other kidnappings and murders of children in Virginia.

Portrait of Evonitz

Evonitz, who has been linked to three kidnappings and murders of children in Virginia, killed himself in 2002 before police could arrest him. (Contributed photo)

“Evonitz’s final words were, ‘I committed more crimes than I can remember,’ but federal agents maintained he only killed three little girls – and that he only liked little girls,” Enright said. “I’ve been through everything he owns more than once – including his extensive pornography collection – and I don’t believe he was only interested in little girls.”

Tracking a Rapist

As part of a book project, Enright and her students plotted a timeline of places Evonitz lived and visited during his years in the U.S. Navy and as a traveling salesman, creating a digital database of evidence. As part of her new clinic, the Project for Informed Reform, students have been searching for unsolved cases, disappearances and murders in the specific times and places Evonitz was known to be.

Jacint Horvath, a third-year student who participated in the clinic during the last school year, searched for incidents that may have taken place in South Carolina in 1989, when Evonitz’s ship was docked in Charleston, about a 50-minute drive from the site of the Turner murder.

“I came across Justin Lee Turner’s murder that occurred on or about March 3, 1989, the same day Evonitz arrived,” said Horvath, who is awaiting results from a Freedom of Information Act request on the exact time the ship arrived. 

The boy’s stepmother was originally charged with the murder in 1990, but those charges were dropped for lack of evidence. In 1992, prosecutors again presented the case against her to a grand jury, but the jury rejected the effort, finding the evidence insufficient. If prosecutors obtained additional evidence, they could again pursue the charges. And on Jan. 9, 2024, they said they did.

Enright has been writing a book about her efforts to link Evonitz to crimes that others have been accused or convicted of. But with Turner’s parents under renewed scrutiny, she decided to act.

“I knew I couldn’t hold this information for my book, so I picked up the phone on a Friday night and I left a message for their court-appointed defender,” she said.

The Phone Call

Her message promised the attorney, Shaun Kent, that this would be “the weirdest message you’ll have received in a long time.” While she couldn't prove his clients are innocent, she told him, Evonitz’s record closely matched the timeframe and details of the murder.

“My evidence certainly makes this serial killer look like a better suspect,” she said. “I can tell you he’s a known serial killer. I can tell you his ship came in sometime in that 24-hour period. I can tell you he followed children’s school buses, and I can tell you he abducted them.”

Evonitz also raped his victims, which matched with Turner’s autopsy results.

Candid Picture of UVA School of Law professor Deirdre Enright (left) and Student Jacint Horvath (right)

Enright, left, and third-year student Jacint Horvath have plotted a timeline of places Evonitz lived and visited during his years in the Navy and as a traveling salesman. (Contributed photo)

Kent was in the middle of writing a 100-page brief moving to dismiss the charges because of the lack of evidence against his client and the dearth of available witnesses. Enright’s subsequent letter to Kent detailed the type of evidence she has from Evonitz, and outlined her reasons for believing he could be a suspect in Turner’s death.

As it turns out, the local sheriff’s office had previously been told about Evonitz being a possible suspect. In 2008, the FBI sent an alert to state law enforcement agencies describing the characteristics of Evonitz’s crimes and advising them to “review ALL unsolved abductions, sexual assaults and/or murders that occurred (during) the timeframe Evonitz is documented to have been in your jurisdiction.”

Local investigators do not appear to have acted on that alert, Enright said.

Enright’s letter seems to have shocked observers when Kent introduced it in court in March along with the ignored FBI alert. At the prosecution’s request, the judge held off on his decision to allow time for further investigation.

“This is pretty explosive evidence and obviously everyone needs time to explore that and digest that and investigate that,” prosecutors said at the time, according to local news reports.

‘My Son Was My Life’

In a Zoom meeting on June 14 with Victor and Megan Turner, Kent told Enright and Horvath the information they provided was key to helping his clients.

Illustration of Attorney Shaun Kent Presenting in Court Room

Attorney Shaun Kent presented in court information that Enright and her team compiled, and details of a lack of evidence in the case against his clients in Turner’s murder. (Illustration by John DiJulio, University Communications)

“The information didn’t just save their freedom, I think it shaped their reputations and their lives, because people look at it differently now,” Kent said.

Victor Lee Turner described losing a job when police came to his workplace to interrogate him. He had to keep a part of his life hidden to avoid the judgment of others and could not properly mourn and memorialize his son.

“I couldn’t put no pictures out of my son because people would have asked about it,” he said. “I couldn’t turn around and express anything about my life. I was afraid that somebody was going to know about it.”

The Turners said they are grateful to be free from further prosecution, but said the experience still haunts them. 

“My son was my life,” Victor Lee Turner said. “It is over in a way, but not over. Every time (I) get to thinking about it, (I still) get choked up.”

“I’m just so glad this happened to give you time to be free of it,” Enright replied.

With additional reporting by Josette Corazza

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