Grand jury clears CCSO of inmate’s death

Published 10:24 am Monday, August 23, 2021

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A Covington County Grand Jury recently heard evidence regarding the death of escaped inmate, Donald Van Buren Turner, and cleared Sheriff Blake Turman and his deputies, finding their actions to be justified.

District Attorney Walt Merrell noted, “It is not unusual for a case where an officer is involved in any event that ends in the death of another person to be presented to a Grand Jury.” Merrell said the process is designed to protect officers from undue speculation as much as it is designed to assure the public that those officers are subject to the same laws they are sworn to uphold. “We call on our law enforcement officers to protect us at all costs, and they sometimes have to use force to do that. A Grand Jury is best suited to decide whether they feel the use of force was appropriate and justified, or excessive, under the circumstances. Because of this process, the public should feel assured that everyone, including police officers, will be subject to the law.”

Turner walked off of a work release detail in April. The Sheriff’s Office monitors work release inmates with electronic ankle monitors. Turner’s monitor alerted that something was amiss, signaling the band had been cut. Deputies found the device on the side of the road during the investigation. Records indicate that near the time Turner’s monitor alerted, a County employee reported his personal truck stolen. The employee informed officers two firearms inside the truck. Deputies found the stolen vehicle a short time later, abandoned just south of Andalusia on a powerline right-of-way. One firearm was missing.

K9 tracking dogs were called, and they tracked Turner from the abandoned vehicle to a farm approximately a quarter of a mile through the woods. There, they realized Turner had just stolen a second truck and a gooseneck trailer. According to Merrell, “Law enforcement had already set up a perimeter on all the roads around the abandoned vehicle. When they learned of the second stolen vehicle, they quickly identified it, and Turner, as approaching one of the check points. Stop sticks were deployed, but Turner drove into the ditch to avoid them.”

Radio logs show that Turner traveled back toward Andalusia at high rates of speed on Alabama Highway 55, driving erratically and dangerously, at times forcing oncoming traffic to abandon the roadway to avoid colliding with Turner. Merrell noted the pursuit was traveling into Andalusia city limits, and it was “just at 5 o’clock. Traffic was heavy and getting heavier.” Sheriff Turman then undertook to force Turner and his vehicle from the road. “The two vehicles stayed hinged together for several hundred yards. Sheriff Turman’s truck simply wasn’t heavy enough to push Turner’s stolen truck and trailer from the road,” Merrell added. The pursuit ended when Turner’s truck left the roadway and crashed. Turner was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

Merrell said he watched video of the crash. “Even to an untrained eye, you could tell the vehicles were no longer traveling at a high rate of speed. Obviously, the Sheriff had done a good job of slowing down Turner’s vehicle.”

According to Merrell, “We called the State Bureau of Investigation to lead the investigation. Within a few minutes, local SBI agents were on scene. By the end of the day, I had had in-person meetings or phone conversations with SBI Director Chris Inabinett, SBI Captain Shawn Loughridge, SBI Lieutenant Heath Carpenter, and numerous other state police officers. Their response was top-notch. I appreciate how fast they came to the scene and how they left no stone unturned. In particular, lead agent David McGowan did an excellent job.”

Turner’s body was sent to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences (ADFS) for autopsy. “Much to everyone’s surprise, the autopsy results revealed that Turner died from a single, self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head,” Merrell reported. ADFS ruled the cause of death a suicide. “There was a visible sign of trauma at one small place on the back of Turner’s head, but everyone suspected it was caused by impact, as the gooseneck trailer came unhooked and crashed through the back of the truck cab. None of us realized until the autopsy that he died from a gunshot wound.”

Because of the autopsy, SBI agents ensured that no law enforcement officer fired any weapon during the pursuit with Turner. Merrell added “There was plenty of body camera and dash camera footage, not to mention video taken by citizens. A review of all of that footage clearly demonstrated that no officer ever fired a weapon.” Merrell acknowledged that officers were initially perplexed by the fact that Turner’s truck suddenly left the roadway; however, “It became apparent that the sudden lurch was because he no longer had control. He was deceased.”

“It’s unfortunate that Turner put so many lives in danger. It’s tragic that he took his own life. Officers recovered the stolen pistol from the truck. They also recovered one spent shell casing.” As for Sheriff Turman, Merrell said his actions were meritorious. “Who knows what would have happened had Turner succeeded in getting to the intersection of Stanley Avenue and East Three Notch in that full size truck and gooseneck trailer? Thank the Lord that Turner didn’t make it to Andalusia High School. The Sheriff went above and beyond the call of duty to keep this police pursuit out of Andalusia and away from its citizens. It is admirable that Sheriff Turman undertook the dangerous job himself, rather than asking his deputies to do it. He stepped into harm’s way to keep his men safe. We should all be proud to have someone like him leading law enforcement in this county.”

Merrell added that he mourns the loss of any life. “Mr. Turner had family. I don’t understand why he did these things. They are in my prayers.”