By Paul St. Louis
Last spring, I was on a jury that found 37-year-old Frederick Turner guilty of dealing drugs. 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 – Judge T. S. Ellis, 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?
I made sure to take my responsibility seriously. I followed the court’s instructions that sentencing wasn’t something the jury should consider. So, we didn’t. We relied on the belief that a just sentence would be handed out.
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, I would nullify. The sentence he received was 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.
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. And now he is dead.
I am not generally a political person. I hadn’t thought a lot about our criminal-justice system before 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 needs our prompt attention and remedy. At every step, Turner was given a bad deal.
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.
Paul St. Louis is a resident of Fairfax County, Va.