“I think that’s excessive,” Judge T.S. Ellis III said Friday after imposing the mandatory minimum punishment. “The only thing I can do is express my displeasure. . . . I chafe a bit at that, but I follow the law.”
Such complaints from judges were more common a decade ago. They found sympathetic ears in the Obama administration, when officials moved to rein in such sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and Barack Obama offered clemency to more than 1,000 inmates who had received punishments viewed by some as too harsh. But the Trump administration has taken the opposite approach as part of a renewed war on drugs.
“Of course, if I thought it was blatantly immoral, I would resign,” the 78-year-old senior judge said in court. “It’s wrong, but it’s not immoral.”
Turner, of Woodbridge, was convicted of working with others to deal drugs in and around his community. His arrest came amid a broad investigation into drug and firearms crimes in the Washington area.
Ellis said he hoped Turner would “have some success” getting prosecutors to move for a sentence reduction in exchange for cooperation, repeatedly urging the government to do so.
It’s not clear what help Turner could offer, though, as his co-conspirators have pleaded guilty. And while the other defendants cooperated, Turner went to trial and testified in a way that jurors did not find credible. He claimed that he was threatened into the business by the drug dealer who recruited him, Bassam Ramadan.
Ramadan and others in the conspiracy who testified against Turner said that, on the contrary, he was a willing participant.
“The defendant’s criminal acts were not an isolated mistake and he has continued to deny responsibility,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Carina Cuellar and Michael Parker said in a court filing.
On Friday, Turner expressed remorse.
“There is no excuse for my actions,” Turner said, calling them “stupid” and “selfish.”
He apologized to the police involved in his case, saying his nephew was killed while serving as an officer in Utah.
“Having lost the closest person in my life in the line of duty, I couldn’t respect them more,” he said.
Defense attorney Dontae Bugg said it was that death in 2016 that caused Turner to relapse after several years of struggling with meth addiction. Ramadan met Turner on Grindr the next year, after joining the dating app to expand his meth business.
Turner was dealing meth for Ramadan from about May 2017 to his arrest in September, according to court documents. His customers included an undercover detective referred to in court as Mountain Man.
There was no evidence that Turner carried a gun or was involved in a situation where guns were used. But he visited Ramadan’s house and knew that Ramadan carried a gun and kept weapons there to protect the drugs. Turner also knew that other people involved in the ring were armed. And when Ramadan sold a gun to the undercover detective, it was Turner who retrieved the gun from Ramadan’s car and packaged it with meth for him.
Those facts resulted in convictions on two counts of having a firearm while dealing drugs. That extended his sentence by 30 years, because the two mandatory minimum sentences — five years for a first offense and 25 for a second — must run consecutive to the 10-year mandatory minimum for his two drug crimes.
Ramadan was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Other defendants, part of the larger takedown of armed drug dealers in Northern Virginia, got as few as four. No one involved, including major drug traffickers linked to deadly shootings, faces a mandatory minimum sentence as high as the one imposed on Turner.
Three weeks before his arrest, his sisters said in letters to the court, Turner reached out about getting help, but they could not find an inpatient treatment program he could afford.
Turner grew up Mormon in Utah but turned to drinking and drugs as a teenager, Bugg said in court filings, in part to deal with an abusive father. He struggled with depression, particularly after the deaths of his mother and father.
“I have watched my brother struggle with awful addiction over the years and he has overcome his addiction and then slipped with each new tragedy that struck our family,” one of his sisters wrote in a letter to the court.
“A straight-faced argument cannot be made that Mr. Turner fits the definition of a kingpin or serious drug trafficker,” Bugg said in his sentencing filing. “It appears that prior to the introduction of steady sales to Mountain Man, this criminal enterprise was using more drugs than it sold to others.”
Ellis said he took the argument to heart but had little power to respond to it.
“You’re knocking on the wrong door,” he told Bugg. “The remedy is across the river,” he said in a reference to Congress.
There have been bipartisan efforts in Congress to soften mandatory minimum sentences, but they have been met with intense opposition from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Where former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. instructed prosecutors to avoid charging certain defendants with offenses that would trigger long mandatory sentences, Sessions has told them to pursue the most severe penalties.
Ellis did note that prosecutors could have chosen not to charge Turner with crimes that would lead to such a lengthy prison sentence.
“You don’t have to pursue every charge, especially ones that must run consecutively,” he said.
But, he added, “you could not have known for certain that you would get convictions on all four counts — so I understand why you pursued all four.”
Likewise, he said he understood why Turner exercised his right to a trial.
“The result presents me with something I have no discretion to change,” he said.