Judge Dismisses Case Against Couple Charged This Year in Boy’s 1989 Murder

Judge Dismisses Case Against Couple Charged This Year in Boy’s 1989 Murder

Citing the long delay in bringing criminal charges, a South Carolina judge on Friday dismissed murder counts that were filed earlier this year against a father and stepmother accused of killing the father’s 5-year-old son in 1989.

The judge, Roger M. Young Sr. of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, wrote that the 35-year delay had caused “substantial actual prejudice to both defendants, infringing upon their right to a fair trial.”

More than 20 witnesses who could have testified in 1989 were no longer able to so do because they were either dead or in poor health, the judge wrote. As a result, he said, lawyers for the father, Victor Lee Turner, 70, and his wife, Megan Renee Turner, 63, would have been unable to question them.

After the boy, Justin Lee Turner, was reported missing on the afternoon of March 3, 1989, the Turners initially told the authorities that he had gotten on a school bus and never returned.

Two days later, as a local news station, WCBD-TV of Charleston, S.C., was recording, Mr. Turner appeared to discover the boy’s body in a camper trailer on the family’s property. “My son’s in there,” he said quietly.

Investigators believed in 1989 that Ms. Turner had strangled Justin with a dog leash that was recovered in the kitchen of the family’s home, Judge Young wrote. She was indicted on a murder charge in February 1990, but prosecutors dropped it later that year.

In 1992, prosecutors presented evidence once again to a grand jury, but the panel declined to issue any indictments, citing “insufficient evidence” to sustain a conviction, Judge Young wrote.

The case was dormant for nearly 30 years before being reopened in 2021.

Investigators from a cold-case unit in the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office re-evaluated the autopsy and physical evidence collected at the crime scene and found inconsistencies in the Turner family’s account of Justin’s disappearance, according to an affidavit used to support the charges filed this year.

The affidavit said Ms. Turner had reported that Justin got on a school bus that Friday morning in March 1989 and never returned. But witnesses said that they had not seen the boy get on the bus and that he was not in school that day, the affidavit stated.

Two days into the search, Mr. Turner showed an “apparent awareness” of the boy’s fate by asking officers what would happen if a family member had harmed or killed the boy, according to the affidavit.

Mr. Turner then “feigned” discovery of the boy’s body “within seconds” of entering the camper and not checking it for signs of life, the affidavit said.

In January, when the Turners were arrested and charged, the Berkeley County sheriff, S. Duane Lewis, said that Justin had never gotten on the bus because the Turners had killed him and left his body in the camper.

Forensic technology was used to match fibers found in the house with the boy’s clothing and the wounds on his neck, the affidavit said. There was no debris or other matter on his body, clothing or shoes, suggesting he had been carried from the house to the camper, it said.

But in his decision on Friday, Judge Young wrote that “no new evidence was presented” at a hearing that was held in March with a detective from the cold-case unit of the Sheriff’s Office. The office believed that Ms. Turner strangled Justin with a dog leash and a dog collar, but the state “cited no new evidence substantiating what led them to this conclusion,” Judge Young wrote.

The judge ordered that the cases against the Turners be “forever ended,” a decision that one of their lawyers, Shaun Kent, welcomed.

“They should never have been arrested,” Mr. Kent said in an interview on Monday. “There was no new evidence whatsoever, and anyone they would have been relying on has long since passed. It just wasn’t a strong case.”

The top prosecutor in the Ninth Judicial Circuit, Scarlett A. Wilson, said in a statement that she had no grounds to dispute Judge Young’s findings, including his finding about the lack of any new evidence in the investigation.

“It is rare that prosecutors can say” that nothing more could have been “done to conduct a more thorough investigation, but in this case, we know that Sheriff Lewis and his team of investigators did all they could do to find truth and justice,” Ms. Wilson said.

At the hearing in March, Ms. Turner offered a theory that a suspected serial killer, Richard M. Evonitz, who died in 2002, was in the area in 1989 and had “an opportunity” to murder Justin, Judge Young wrote.

She introduced evidence that Mr. Evonitz, who was in the Navy, had been assigned to a ship that may have docked in Charleston around March 2, 1989, Judge Young wrote.

He wrote that South Carolina investigators had asked for time to examine the connection. Ms. Wilson’s office had no immediate comment.

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