Drug War

A Judge Called His Mandatory Sentence 'Excessive' and 'Wrong.' Less Than a Year Later He Died In Federal Prison

Frederick Turner was sentenced to a mandatory 40 years on nonviolent drug and firearm charges. He ended up in a high-security federal prison, and now he's dead.

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Less than a year after being sentenced to prison for 40 years under a mandatory minimum sentence that the judge declared "excessive" and "wrong," Frederick Turner, 38, was found dead in his cell at a high-security federal lockup in Colorado on Wednesday, according to a criminal justice advocacy group.

FAMM, an organization that works to repeal mandatory minimum sentences, announced Turner's death yesterday and said his family had been working to get Turner, who had no prior criminal convictions, transferred to a different prison for his safety.

"The thing that's so frustrating is this was entirely foreseeable," says FAMM president Kevin Ring. "You were sending this gentle, nonviolent offender into a hell hole run by gangs."

Ring says that Turner was sent to the U.S. penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. The prison has a reputation for violence, and Turner feared for his life after he refused to join a white supremacist gang.

The circumstances of Turner's death are not yet known. The Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but its online inmate locator confirms he died on Thursday.

Last July, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III sentenced Turner to 40 years in federal prison after Turner was convicted of dealing methamphetamines for another man, Bassam Ramadan, as part of a larger drug trafficking prosecution in Northern Virginia.

According to his defense attorney and family, Turner struggled with addiction and depression, and he relapsed after the death of his close nephew in 2016. Around that time, Ramadan recruited Turner to sell meth after meeting him on the dating app Grindr.

Turner received a 10-year sentence for the drug crimes and an additional 30 years for gun crimes—five years for the first gun charge, and 25 years for the second gun charge. The "stacking" of gun charges in this way is one of the crueler features of federal sentencing law. (See also: the case of Weldon Angelos, who was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison under stacking firearm enhancements for selling marijuana to an undercover officer while possessing a gun.) And in Turner's case, as in so many others, the gun penalty was based on offenses that would have not been considered criminal had Turner not also been selling meth.

According to prosecutors, Turner visited Ramadan's house, where he knew there was a firearm, and on one occasion he retrieved a gun from Ramadan's car that Ramadan later sold, along with meth, to an undercover officer.

The prosecutors could have chosen not to charge Turner with the firearm enhancements, as Ellis noted, but like many federal defendants who turn down plea deals, he was hammered with what criminal justice advocates and defense attorneys call the "trial penalty." According to the Washington Post, all of the other defendants pleaded guilty and testified against Turner. All of them, including some linked to deadly shootings, received lower sentences. Ramadan, for example, was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

"I think that's excessive," Judge T.S. Ellis III said after imposing Turner's sentence, The Washington Post reported. "The only thing I can do is express my displeasure. . . . I chafe a bit at that, but I follow the law."

After the sentencing, one of the jurors spoke out to The Washington Post:

"While clearly everyone in the room thought he was guilty, my read of the room is that some people were sad," St. Louis said. "There were people who cried."

It was months later when he learned that Turner, a meth addict with no prior criminal convictions, was sentenced to 40 years behind bars because of mandatory minimum sentencing.

"Mr. Turner has a problem, he made really bad decisions. But do I think he can be a productive member of society? Yes, and I don't think he'll ever get that chance," St. Louis said. "And it's hard to reconcile that."

Ring says FAMM became aware of Turner's case after his sentencing, and the question ever since has been why he was sent to a high-security prison with a reputation for violence.

"That's what we want to know because nobody who looked at his case and his personal profile would have sent him to a place like that because he's never exhibited any violence," Ring says. "He was scared for his life right from the get-go, and the prison knew that."

Several months after Turner was sentenced, Congress passed the FIRST STEP Act, which reduced the mandatory minimum sentences for Turner's crime. He would have only received a 20-year sentence instead. However, Congress did not make those provisions retroactive, meaning Turner could not benefit from them.

A Pew Research Center report released this week found that in 2018, only 2 percent of federal criminal cases went to trial. Massive mandatory minimum sentences give prosecutors so much leverage over defendants that turning down a plea deal and exercising one's constitutional right to trial becomes an irrationally risky choice.

Last month at a FAMM conference, Turner's sister, Mandy Richards, gave an emotional speech about Turner's case. "In that prison you either join a gang or you fear for your life," she said. "This is a brother who has never hurt a soul besides himself."

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33 responses to “A Judge Called His Mandatory Sentence 'Excessive' and 'Wrong.' Less Than a Year Later He Died In Federal Prison

  1. “The only thing I can do is express my displeasure. . . . I chafe a bit at that, but I follow the law.”

    Wrong, you could have resigned, but you valued your phony-baloney job too much to do that.

    1. Or he could have just sentenced him to a lower sentence and forced the prosecutor to appeal the sentence.

      What would be the consequences of doing this (not an attorney)?

      1. If a judge actually said, “I’m doing what the positive law forbids in the name of a higher law,” I would be very interested to see the result.

        I happen to believe “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” supersede the positive law in case of conflict, but I don’t know if judges can rely on that if they get in trouble for ignoring the positive law.

        1. The judge might have said “Following the positive law in this case would be a plain violation of the Eighth Amendment, so I’m abiding by my oath to the Constitution, instead.” But yeah, the reaction would be interesting.

    2. Imagine if, every time the law required an improper sentence (too harsh or too lenient), the judge said, “I’m not going to impose that sentence, I’m going back into the private sector where I can get an honest job representing rapists and burglars. And I recommend that nobody else take this job, either.”

      It might have an influence on sentencing policy, if they had trouble finding judges to impose the sentences they invent.

      It would be like the Lysistrata of the drug war, but with judging instead of sex.

      1. You’d end up with only hanging judges on the trial bench, which means you’d mostly end up with hanging judges on the appeals court.

        It would be be a disaster.

        1. I can’t predict with 100% accuracy, but I will venture the following contrary prediction:

          The replacement judges would be careerists who rubber-stamped whatever their sponsors and higher-ups wanted.

          So if Congress does a 180 and goes soft on crime, the new judges would grow soft, too.

        2. You effectively only get hanging judges anyway with mandatory sentencing.

  2. >>>mandatory minimum sentence that the judge declared “excessive” and “wrong”

    declarant fail. quit or sentence him lighter and apologize up.

  3. Ramadan recruited Turner to sell meth after meeting him on the dating app Grindr

    Out: Pot, Ass Sex and Mexicans

    In: Meth, Ass Sex and Muslims

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  5. “The only thing I can do is express my displeasure. . . . I chafe a bit at that, but I follow the law.”

    Well, how did he get a law degree and a judgeship without knowing to throw out the gun charges as unconstitutional?

    1. The appeals court would just overrule him and order him to give a harsher sentence.

      We keep hearing judges say they don’t want to impose these sentences but feel obliged to do so, anyway. In fact, what they feel obliged to do is keep their jobs – their jobs would probably be at risk if they openly said they wouldn’t apply the law as interpreted by higher courts.

      If (as we’re constantly assured) these judges could make more in private practice, why can’t they just quit instead of putting up with lower pay and the expectation that they enforce bad laws?

      Maybe they think they can do better by working within the system. I certainly would never suggest that they keep their jobs because they want to be able to force people to rise at the sound of their name and kowtow to them in public, or because they’re virtually assured a lifetime of employment so long as they play along with the system, don’t take bribes, and don’t grope the staff.

      1. We ended that nonsense at Nuremberg.
        If the law is unconstitutional, they have an obligation to ignore it.
        So an appeals court overrules him. At least the constitutional issue is elevated.

        1. Could it be that my proposed solution is too moderate?

          After all, Kim Davis didn’t resign.

          And all *she* wanted was her name off the official marriage certificates, not blocking the issuance of certificates altogether.

          (ducks)

  6. It’s ridiculously simple to avoid his fate: Don’t deal drugs. Don’t handle guns while dealing drugs.

    1. Then why distinguish among degrees of punishment at all?

      Why not death for all crimes?

      Speaking of death – if 40 years is appropriate for a meth-and-guns deal, what’s the suitable punishment for killing someone? 80 years? A zillion years?

    2. Just submit and do what you’re told.

      OBEY

    3. What’s wrong with either of those things?

    4. “It’s ridiculously simple to avoid his fate: Don’t deal drugs. Don’t handle guns while dealing drugs.”

      So just accept whatever prohibitions the government decides to impose?

      What if the government made it illegal for idiots to post comments on the internet? Would you be OK with spending the next 20 years in prison?

  7. Prisons are out of control.

    Violent gangs run the places. It’s a fucking embarrassment.

    Bring the death penalty back to all prisons.

  8. A Judge Called His Mandatory Sentence ‘Excessive’ and ‘Wrong.’

    But he did it anyway.

    “The only thing I can do is express my displeasure. . . . I chafe a bit at that, but I follow the law.”

    Really? Oh wait, no. There are several things you could have done.

    1. Given a lesser sentence and then let the prosecutor decide if its worth his time to fight it on appeal.

    2. Dismissed the charges. FFS, you could have told the prosecutor to adjust his charges or else you’ll dismiss the case ‘in the service of justice’ if you didn’t want to let the guy walk free.

    3. Recused yourself.

    4. Just quit. Just completely stop supporting a corrupt system.

    But no, you want to keep that sweet, sweet, Federal judge pay rolling in and keep those nice little perks that come with being part of the ruling class.

  9. The judge’s job is to make sure the prosecutor and defense attorney follow the State rule book. But the judge and the prosecutor are both agents of the State; and if you have a public defender, then so is he. So … the State makes all the rules and then appoints the ref and all the players. You are offered a choice: give up now and the State will only beat heck out of you (98% choose this option); or go play its game before a jury of “your peers” — who don’t know you and generally have nothing in common with you except that they are not agents of the State, but who are warned that if they don’t also follow the State’s rulebook, there will be chaos — and if you lose the game, the State will beat heck out of you 20-fold instead (the other 2%). We call this “due process” and pretend it’s fair. And then we have debates here at Reason.com about what else the judge may have decided on sentencing? Seriously?

    1. and a jury had they known about it might have nullified the whole process, it sounds as though they wanted no part of the tyrannical court system. If they had also learned that drug laws are all based in racism then invoking the 2nd Amendment as a protected Right the only guilty party(s) are undercover leos and wardens who supply drugs to convicts and do not control their prisons using any other means other than drugs. The drug sales by convicts keep the guards safe, fuck the inmates.
      We do not need law enforcement or courts. They help nobody but themselves. I would be scared as hell these days to work for that system.

  10. “Several months after Turner was sentenced, Congress passed the FIRST STEP Act, which reduced the mandatory minimum sentences for Turner’s crime. He would have only received a 20-year sentence instead. However, Congress did not make those provisions retroactive, meaning Turner could not benefit from them.”

    Twenty years! That’s still fucking madness.

    1. The federal government enforcing laws against intrastate crimes at all is madness.

  11. Quite simply – the federal drug thugs, prosecutors, jury and judge murdered this man just as suredly as if they took him off the street into an ally and put a bullet in his head. Though the process they followed satisfies most Americans, the end result was as evil as the recent acts of mass murder, even worse. Many more Americans must die Frederick Turners way than at all the Coumbine type massacres combined.

    Rule of Peace: Don’t initiate, or threaten to use, violence to achieve personal, social or political goals! More simply – Don’t hit me or take my stuff!

    1. “Rule of Peace: Don’t initiate, or threaten to use, violence to achieve personal, social or political goals!”

      You need more than that. You need a population who actually cares about the injustices meted out by the state. Americans, at least the paler ones, don’t seem to care about what is done in the name of justice. They might tell a few jokes about the poor schlub getting raped in prison, but it’s not enough.

      1. True, mtrueman. Most Americans have no moral core. For them, the philosophy of pragmatism is the arbiter of right and wrong – no universal truths for them. I doubt many secondary or advanced educational institutions even bring up the topic of the moral defense of freedom.
        Without a philosophical base, “Rule of Peace: Don’t initiate, or threaten to use, violence to achieve personal, social or political goals!”, will remain an unexplored truism.

  12. The sentence is madness but it doesn’t answer the question of why he is dead. There seems no likely scenario where he doesn’t wind up in federal prison.

    Please write a story about the real issue. The fact that gangs run our prisons.

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  14. Criminal dead in prison. Film at….never.

    Once again Reason picks the wrong poster boy.

    This man WAS guilty. He DID commit the crimes he was accused of.

    We may all want those actions to not be crimes, but, right now, they are. And he knew that going in.

    He’s not dead as a result of the sentence. So whether or not it was excessive is, in his case, moot.

    So why attach a dead, failed criminal to a valid issue?

    Because the issue itself is not a valid one.

    We have these stupid mandatory minimums because the EXACT SAME activists who are now trying to get rid of them demanded them because they believed that judges were racist and using harsh sentencing to inflict unfair incarceration against black people.

    Since the mandatory sentencing didn’t keep black people out of jail–far from it, now judges HAVE to give them sentences they used to escape, the mandatory minimums must be the racist problem.

    So now we must get rid of the mandatory minimums.

    And then there’s this–

    like many federal defendants who turn down plea deals, he was hammered with what criminal justice advocates and defense attorneys call the “trial penalty.”

    It’s not ‘trial penalty’. A plea deal means that you will not be charged with all the crimes you are accused of having committed or that you will plead to a lesser charge if you plead guilty. Not taking the plea deal means that you get charged with everything you’re accused of.

    For the prosecution to not do so would mean that they were giving you the plea deal you refused.

  15. The outcome is sad but decisions have consequences. The former judge made some bad decisions and the reasons are irrelevant. Did he deserve to die? No and that is a problem with the correctional system that should be addressed.

Comments are closed.