Judge says fair trial impossible and drops murder charges against parents in 1989 killing of boy


COLUMBIA (AP) — A South Carolina judge on Friday threw out murder charges filed this year against a father and a stepmother, saying there was no new evidence they killed their 5-year-old child in 1989.
Circuit Judge Roger Young ruled the original detective in the case changed his interpretations of the evidence and with more than 20 witnesses either dead or unable to testify in the 35-year-old case, the couple couldn't put up a fair defense and question witnesses who claimed they made incriminating statements.
The judge barred prosecutors from ever charging the couple again. The boy's father said Friday by wrongly focusing on them at the start they could never properly grieve and the real killer likely will never be known.
"I feel like they did a very poor case from the beginning," said Victor Turner, father of 5-year-old Justin Turner. "I'm glad that it's over with but now we really won't ever know too much. All I wanted was to get the person who did this."
Justin Turner was found dead in a cabinet in a camper behind his Berkeley County home in March 1989. He had been strangled.
Investigators immediately thought the killing scene had been staged and they caught his father, Victor Turner, and stepmother, Megan Turner, in lies, Berkeley County Sheriff Duane Lewis said at a January news conference where he announced murder charges against both of them in the cold case.
Megan Turner was also charged with murder in 1990, but a grand jury refused to indict her.
Megan Turner said the suspicion around her since her stepson's death has been crushing. She has been afraid to speak to anyone, fearing her words would be twisted by police determined to unjustly convict her.
"It's been over 30 years," Turner said, crying. "We couldn't say anything. The investigation when it first started everything went so wrong ... if we said anything, they tried to turn it against us."
Sheriffs determined to solve the case had tunnel vision depending on assumptions and poorly gathered evidence, defense attorney Shaun Kent said at a Friday news conference.
"One sheriff after another would whisper a rumor in the next one's mind. And then the next one would say it and the next one," Kent said. "This case is not based on any evidence. It is based on rumors and innuendos."
After the couple were arrested, the Virginia School of Law's Innocence Project sent Kent evidence that serial killer Richard Evonitz was stationed on a U.S. Navy ship in nearby Charleston at the time of the killing.
Evidence and the method used in the boy's case matched three other kidnappings and killings of children in Virginia that Evonitz was linked to, Kent said.
Evonitz killed himself as police closed in on him in 2002. His body was cremated, likely making it impossible to try to match his DNA with evidence in the South Carolina case and further hampering the Turners ability to defend themselves.
The detective who investigated the case in 1989 was rehired by the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office in 2021 to review cold cases. He testified investigators were able to determine tiny fibers from a ligature found at the home shortly after the boy's disappearance were found to match those found on the boy's shirt.
Kent said that using a microscope shouldn't count as new evidence.
When they arrested the couple this year, deputies changed their theory on how the boy was killed, saying he was strangled with a dog collar attached to a leash instead of just the leash. The new theory only came after deputies bought a collar and tested it with a mannequin, defense lawyers said.
The judge pointed out the collar and dog would have been available in 1989 but not now. The collar has not been found since even with detectives digging up the dog's remains, the defense said.
Justin Turner's body was found two days after he was reported missing as investigators in arresting the couple cited strange statements and behavior like Victor Turner entering the camper as a TV camera filmed him and seconds later said he found the body among the many cabinets and drawers in the camper.
The couple asked officers what might happen if a family member harmed the boy and others said Megan Turner suggested a big fight with her stepson before he died that she won.
Having more than 20 witnesses used to build the case in 1989 unable to testify today isn't fair to the couple, the judge ruled.
"This is a circumstantial evidence which depends on part on supposedly incriminating statements made to third persons. Unavailability of those witnesses for cross examination would be highly prejudicial to the defense," Young wrote.
Prosecutors said they had no grounds to dispute Young's ruling and lamented the mistakes made by investigators 35 years ago in collecting and preserving evidence.
"It is rare that prosecutors can say there is nothing more that could have 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," Solicitor Scarlett Wilson wrote in a statement.
Other family members of Justin Turner issued an unsigned statement through prosecutors saying the justice system failed.
"Based off the overwhelming evidence, the ones responsible for Justin's death had the chance to face justice here, but instead chose to stay silent and face the final justice handed out by God for eternity!" the statement read.