Frederick Turner, 37, was convicted in Virginia federal court of drug distribution and weapons charges. (Dontae Bugg)

When he agreed to find Frederick Turner guilty this spring, Paul St. Louis suspected the drug dealer was facing a serious sentence, maybe 20 years in prison.

He wasn’t happy about it, and neither were the other jurors in the Alexandria federal courtroom where Turner was tried, St. Louis said.

“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.”

St. Louis described himself as an “average juror — a husband, a person who goes to work every day, middle-of-the-road political views.” He lives in Fairfax County and works for a small business in the area.


Federal Courthouse in Alexandria, Va. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

“I have two kids, I’m married; I don’t feel that I’m any safer,” with Turner in prison for decades, he said.

He said he felt compelled to speak out after the judge who sentenced Turner, T.S. Ellis III, called the punishment “excessive” and “wrong” at a June sentencing hearing.

If he can’t change the sentence, “why do we have a judge?” St. Louis asked. “Let’s put that in his hands . . . but instead you heard the judge say his hands are tied, and that doesn’t seem right to me.”

Mandatory minimums have long been controversial. While some say the punishments ensure consistent sentences for serious crimes and give prosecutors necessary leverage to get criminals to cooperate, others — even judges — say they often result in unduly harsh prison terms.

Ellis has urged prosecutors to offer Turner a chance at cooperation. Those discussions are ongoing; in a recent court filing, defense attorney Dontae Bugg wrote that Turner has offered information that “law enforcement agents are investigating for veracity and value.”

Turner, 37, was convicted of working with others to deal drugs in and around his Woodbridge community. His arrest last September came amid a broad crackdown on drug and firearms crimes in the Washington area.

Turner spoke freely with agents after he was charged. But he refused to plead guilty, instead going to trial and arguing that he was dealing drugs only because he was threatened by the dealer who recruited him, Bassam Ramadan.

But Ramadan and others testified that Turner was a willing participant; at one point, he even moved into Ramadan’s house.

“I don’t view Turner as innocent. I don’t believe he’s innocent,” St. Louis said. “It’s about the punishment — when I was done with the trial, it felt like Mr. Turner didn’t need 40 years.”

The defendant’s sister, Mandy Turner, said her brother was “terrified” of incarceration. He had been let out on bail after his arrest.

Having initially been charged with only conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, a crime that carries a 10-year mandatory minimum, Turner was indicted and convicted on four charges — two for dealing meth and two for use of a firearm in a drug-trafficking crime. While he never used a gun himself, he knew Ramadan was armed and once helped the dealer sell a gun to an undercover federal agent.

The mandatory minimum sentence for a first conviction on that firearm charge is five years. A second conviction on the same charge mandates an additional 25 years, and both must run after any other sentence.

“He has never owned a firearm, he has never shot a firearm, he’s never been violent a day in his life,” Mandy Turner said. “He’s just had a drug addiction and got involved with some bad people.”

She said her brother had struggled with meth for years after their mother died. It got worse after his nephew, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty in Utah in 2016.

“He had completely turned it around . . . and then when my nephew was killed, he legitimately lost his mind,” Mandy Turner said.

Weeks before his arrest, she said, he had texted her, saying, “I fear for my life, I need to get clean, I need to get help.” The family had been trying to find him an affordable treatment program.

Jeffrey Bellin, a professor at William & Mary Law School and a former federal prosecutor, said jurors often express concern about long sentences and have even testified against long mandatory minimums at sentencing hearings.

“It says something about the fairness of the sentences and the sentencing laws if the jurors who heard the facts of the case think it’s unwarranted,” he said.

St. Louis said that even if he had known how much time Turner faced, he would have found him guilty based on the law.

“I wouldn’t be an activist juror,” he said. “I still think he was guilty. . . . But with the stacking of the charges — there’s no room for a first offense. How is he ever going to learn from this?”

Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says there is bipartisan agreement in Congress on the need for a sentencing overhaul.

“There’s surprising near-unanimity if not unanimity,” he said. “It’s the least controversial of the sentencing reforms.”

He says he doesn’t believe Congress intended for the five- and 25-year mandatory minimums to be charged against offenders at the same time.

“People don’t even see it as a reform so much as a fix,” he said.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions himself said in 2015, when he served in the Senate, that “the stacking issue is a problem.” But as head of the Justice Department, he has told prosecutors to charge “the most serious, readily provable offense.” Exceptions must be defended and approved by supervisors.

And President Trump has pushed for improvements to prisons over changes to federal sentencing.

“He’s instructed his prosecutors to charge the heck out of everybody,” Ring said.

The three youths involved in the death of Turner’s nephew were juveniles and will be released when they turn 21.

Mandy Turner said the teenager who killed her nephew “will be out in three years.”

“There’s rapists, there’s people who have murdered people, and they will get out before my brother, who is a first-time drug offender,” she said. “It’s devastating.”