Frederick Turner, 37, was convicted in Virginia federal court of drug-distribution charges. He killed himself in prison. (Family photo)

Not long after arriving at a high-security prison to serve a mandatory 40-year sentence for dealing drugs in Virginia, Frederick Turner wrote to his family.

“More and more I obsess with the idea of going to see Mom and Cody,” he said in a letter sent in September 2018 from a Colorado prison.

A year earlier, Turner was arrested for the first time in his life. A year before that, he was sober for the first time after years of substance abuse driven by depression and suicidal thoughts. He started using meth after the death of his mother from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Then his nephew Cody Brotherson, a police officer, was killed in a car chase. Turner relapsed.

In June, Turner, 37, killed himself in his cell. There was methamphetamine in his system.

His family and criminal justice reform advocates argue that a confluence of charging decisions, sentencing rules and prison policies led to an unduly harsh punishment that may have contributed to Turner’s decline and death.

The jurors who convicted Turner couldn’t know what sentence he would face; at least one later said he regretted his vote. The judge who sentenced him couldn’t change a prison term he deemed “excessive” and “wrong.” Even the Justice Department struggled to cut the punishment mandated by its own charging decisions. When he died, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were planning to visit Turner in an effort to help him cooperate in exchange for a rare sentence reduction.

The group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which has asked the Justice Department for an investigation of his death , has questioned the Bureau of Prisons’ decision to put Turner in a high-security facility, the weeks it took officials to deliver his body and his death certificate, and whether guards checked on him before his death. Two fellow prisoners say Turner killed himself when other inmates were at breakfast.

“I can’t say that I’m surprised, because my brother was desperate and depleting quickly,” said his sister, Mandy Richards, who lives in Virginia. In his last email, she said, he told her, “I am not a human.”

The BOP declined to answer questions about Turner’s case, citing an ongoing investigation.

Turner was arrested in 2017 as part of a sweeping crackdown on armed drug dealers in Northern Virginia. He dealt meth for a supplier who also sold an undercover police officer a gun. Of the 48 people charged federally, Turner was the only one let out on bail pending trial. Authorities did not allege he was violent.

But he was the one ultimately given the toughest sentence — harsher than major traffickers and murderers. His conviction came a few months too early for federal criminal justice reform, the First Step Act, that would have cut it in half.

G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, defended the aggressive prosecution, saying drug rings such as the one Turner participated in lead to death. Still, after sentencing, at the urging of Judge T.S. Ellis III, prosecutors offered to support a reduced punishment if Turner offered information on other dealers and gave up his right to appeal. Such deals are almost always made only before trial.

“We were still trying to help this individual,” Terwilliger said.

Guidance from the Justice Department rewards cooperation above all else and is hardest on defendants like Turner, who confessed but then insisted on going to trial.

Turner, a former health-care aide, left his family’s home in Utah not long after his father’s death in 2012 and moved to Virginia to help Richards, who has a severely autistic son. But after Brotherson died, he started using drugs again, stopped paying rent and was no longer welcome at his sister’s house.

Looking for meth, he connected online with a former car salesman named Bassam Ramadan. Within months he was working for and living with Ramadan in Woodbridge, Va. A neighbor soon tipped off police. When an undercover Prince William County police officer arranged a drug buy, Ramadan showed off his gun collection — leading the case to get rolled into the federal takedown. When the officer bought a gun from Ramadan, Turner got it from the car and helped package it.

Turner was charged with selling drugs and with one count of using a firearm. Prosecutors discussed dropping the gun charge if he pleaded guilty. He would have gotten a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, with a reduction for cooperation. But he told his defense attorney he could not spend another day in jail.

He was convicted at trial on two drug and two firearm charges. The first gun count added five years to his sentence and the second added 25 years.

“If we could rewind and I knew what I knew now, I would have forced him to take any sort of deal,” Richards said. “My brother unfortunately really believed that a jury would see the truth and know that he was not that deeply involved in any of this.”

The truth, for Turner and his family, was that he had never been in trouble with the law before. He began selling meth to support his own addiction. He had never been violent. The only creature he had ever pointed a gun at was a lizard. Weeks before his arrest, he came to his family for help. They were looking for an affordable detox program. While out on bond, he went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, got clean and held down two jobs.

But trials are not about that kind of truth. They are about this truth: Turner sold methamphetamines, repeatedly, with armed men he knew were there to protect the drugs and make sure they got paid. He helped sell a gun.

When he was interviewed by an ATF agent after his arrest, he didn’t claim to have been threatened or coerced into dealing, as he later did at trial. He gave up the names of his co-conspirators with no apparent fear. His claims on the stand of constant surveillance by Ramadan were, in the words of a prosecutor, “absolutely ridiculous.”

Although Ramadan threatened Turner over money and warned him that their suppliers were “dangerous people,” according to trial testimony, they maintained a close relationship. He even confided in Ramadan about his suicidal thoughts.

“I don’t want to get all Oprah’s couch with this or talk about it a lot, but I feel like someone should know, and you’re the only one [I] trust right now,” he said in one message.

Federal rules bar jurors from knowing how much time a defendant faces. At the trial’s outset, Assistant U.S. Attorney Carina Cuellar told the judge it would be “very unfair” to “play on the emotions of the jury” by alerting them to the mandatory 40-year term.

One juror has since written that if he had known about that punishment, he would not have supported a conviction.

In 2017, under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department directed prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” a policy that has not been changed by current Attorney General William P. Barr.

Terwilliger said he follows that line, although the office “can back off” if defendants take responsibility by pleading guilty.

In this case, he said, Turner was held accountable for what he did: “When you mix drug dealing and guns, death results.”

Charging multiple counts, he said, was important “to tell the whole story” and protects against jury nullification or adverse appeals court rulings.

According to his defense attorney, Cuellar tried unsuccessfully to get her supervisors to drop a count at sentencing if Turner waived his right to appeal, protecting the verdict while reducing the punishment by 25 years.

“As for why we didn’t drop anything at sentencing — that’s not my practice. Plain and simple,” Terwilliger said. “I think we should put forward the charges that we expect to convict on.”

Because he had more than 30 years to serve, Turner was sent to a high-security prison.

“Sentence length is important and given a lot of weight,” said Joel Sickler, a prison consultant. If a judge recommends that factor specifically be waived, he said, the BOP will agree more than half the time. But such recommendations are “extraordinarily rare.”

Ellis recommended only that Turner be held near family in Utah and have access to a residential drug-treatment program designed for prisoners close to release.

Turner’s family says they believe he owed money to drug suppliers in prison: He would ask for large and specific amounts of commissary money and said he was being watched.

“He was very, very nervous in his surroundings,” said Yancey Ellis, a lawyer who represented Turner after his sentencing. “The only thing he was focused on was trying to get to a different place.”

Turner had tried to kill himself before. His sister said he had struggled his whole life with depression.

Turner was found dead on the morning of June 13. His note, according to the coroner, listed books he had borrowed and the prisoners who should get them. He added that he wanted “no extraordinary measures to save my life.”