updated 6/25/2008 4:30:59 PM ET 2008-06-25T20:30:59

A confession by a former Navy SEAL trainee convicted of killing a Georgia college student is credible, a judge ruled Wednesday, bolstering an effort to exonerate the trainee's co-defendant.

Dustin Turner and fellow trainee Billy Joe Brown were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for the 1995 murder of Jennifer Evans, an Emory University student. But Brown testified last month that he had become a Christian while in prison and decided to admit that he alone committed the killing.

Circuit Judge Frederick Lowe said a state appeals court should consider whether Brown's recent confession would have changed the outcome of Turner's trial.

"This court decides that Mr. Brown's candid testimony is credible. Mr. Brown testified falsely at his own trial," the judge said.

Lowe called the evidence used to convict Turner "largely if not entirely circumstantial."

"Mr. Brown is credible in his assertion that he acted independently in murdering the victim," Lowe said, as an unemotional Turner, 33, watched quietly from the defendant's table.

Afterward, attorney David Hargett called the decision a "gateway" to freedom for Turner.

"We're confident the court of appeals will see the same thing that we and other people have seen, that he's innocent," Hargett said outside the courtroom, as Turner's family members cried and embraced.

"We've never given up hope," said Turner's mother, Linda Summitt.

Evans, a premedical student, was vacationing when she disappeared from a Virginia Beach bar.

Police linked the crime to Turner and Brown, SEAL "swim buddies" nearing the end of their training for the Navy's elite commando corps at nearby Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base.

Both initially denied any knowledge of the slaying and later blamed each other.

Brown testified last month that he choked Evans but initially blamed Turner because he was angry that Turner had cooperated with police.

Prosecutors argued that Brown's revised testimony was not credible.

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