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Paul St. Louis is a resident of Fairfax County, Va.

Last spring, I was on a jury that found 37-year-old Frederick Turner guilty of dealing drugs. It wasn’t easy to arrive at this verdict, and the result of our deliberations gave us no pleasure. A few months later, I found out the result of our verdict was worse than I expected: Turner, a meth addict with no prior criminal convictions, received a mandatory minimum sentence of 40 years on two counts of having a firearm while dealing drugs. I was astonished; we had no idea that we were sending someone to prison for four decades. Even the man who sentenced Turner — T. S. Ellis III, a no-nonsense judge with more than 30 years on the bench — thought the term was “excessive” and “wrong.”

Turner lasted less than a year in that prison. On June 13, he was found dead in his cell at the U.S. penitentiary in Florence, Colo., a notoriously dangerous prison. The circumstances of his death are not clear.

I can’t stop wondering: Why 40 years? And why was this first-time offender, with zero history of violence, sent to one of the most brutal penitentiaries in the country, with a heavy gang presence and minimal staff to manage the extremely dangerous environment?

I’ve always believed in serving on a jury. I still do. It is our civic duty. If we all tried to “get out of jury duty,” then how could justice be served? The system would break down. At Turner’s trial, I took this notion with me into the jury box.

As the trial progressed, and as the gravity of Turner’s situation became more apparent, I made sure to continue to take my responsibility seriously. I followed the court’s instructions that sentencing wasn’t something we in the jury should consider. So, we didn’t. We relied on the belief that a just sentence would be handed out.


Frederick Turner (Photo courtesy of defense attorney Dontae Bugg)

I wasn’t aware of the concept of jury nullification — when a jury finds someone guilty but chooses to acquit because the potential punishment for breaking the law is too harsh. If I could go back in time, and if I knew Turner faced 40 years, I would nullify. The sentence he received was simply unjust.

Turner hadn’t taken a guilty plea, and as a result, he was hit with a “trial penalty.” By exercising his constitutional right to a fair trial, he wound up with more than twice the sentence of his co-conspirators. The prosecution framed the indictment so that Turner would be facing the absurd stacked mandatory minimum sentence that he did.

According to FAMM, a criminal-justice advocacy group that has kept contact with Turner’s family and helped me report details on his time in prison, Turner received constant threats from day one against his life if he refused to join a gang. The idea of rehabilitation or redemption was nonexistent. He begged to be transferred to a lower-security prison. His family relentlessly made calls and wrote letters. No one listened. Turner tried to keep his head above water — to grab on to some kind of hope in the nightmare that is a U.S. prison. But the cards were always stacked against him. And now he is dead.

I am not generally a political person. I hadn’t thought a lot about our criminal-justice system before I was involved in this case. I knew there were problems, of course, but I believed the system worked overall. But it is apparent to me now that the system does indeed need our prompt attention and remedy. At every step, Turner was given a bad deal.

And that “civic duty” I was so sure of? Today, I feel like a pawn used to send a man down a path that led to his unjustified death. But I’m not the victim here; Turner is. I thought the system would break down if we all tried to get out of jury duty. Now I know the system is already broken.