Man Serving 18 Years On Marijuana Charges Just Died In Federal Prison COVID-19 Outbreak

Fidel Torres, 62, qualified for a sentencing reduction, but the same judge who sentenced him denied it based on infractions while in custody.

The most recent inmate to die as the COVID-19 crisis rips through the federal prison system is a 62-year-old who had less than two years left on an 18-year sentence for marijuana charges.

Fidel Torres was sentenced to 220 months in prison way back in 2006 after he waived a jury trial and let a judge decide his fate. Torres was convicted on a conspiracy charge for possession with intent to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana, as well as with aiding and abetting the possession with intent to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. During the case, federal prosecutors also pointed to two previous convictions on Torres’ record, both of which were marijuana-related.

The same judge who found Torres guilty and decided his sentence — U.S. District Judge George Kazen of the Southern District of Texas — later denied Torres a sentencing reduction for which he would otherwise have qualified under revised 2014 U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines, based on relatively minor instances of prison misconduct.

Kazen filed a form order stating that Torres “qualifies for sentence reduction, but the Court will not grant the reduction because of behavior while in custody.” Those violations, according to the government, included “sanctions for stealing, possessing stolen property, possessing an unauthorized item, being insolent to staff, and interfering with taking count.”

“After the commission reduced the drug guideline retroactively in 2014, nearly 32,000 people got shorter, fairer sentences,” said Kevin Ring, who heads the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Some 19,000 people were denied relief, Ring added. Less than 2% of those denials were due to prison misconduct, “and Mr. Torres appears to have been part of that very small and unfortunate minority,” he said.

Kazen also banned Torres, who became a prolific pro se litigator behind bars, from filing anything to the court docket without the court’s permission.

Advocates like Ring say that cases like Torres’ show that the federal Bureau of Prisons needs to do more to expand home confinement to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bureau records show that Torres was scheduled for release in February 2022.

“Fidel Torres was 62 years old and was nearing the end of a lengthy sentence for selling marijuana. He seems like a poster child for home confinement,” Ring told HuffPost.

“Instead, he dies on the same day Michael Cohen goes home after spending a year in prison,” Ring said, referring to the recent release of President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney, who wasn’t scheduled for release until November 2021. “Even if one assumes the BOP is acting with the best of intentions, its decision-making process is impossible to understand.”

Several other defendants in Torres’ case received shorter sentences under plea deals or later had their sentences reduced.

The Bureau of Prisons press release about Torres’ death doesn’t mention any medical issues. But in 2006, his attorney told the court that Torres was diabetic and going blind. The judge ordered Torres to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

Torres, according to BOP, tested positive for COVID-19 on May 2. He was admitted to a hospital on May 6 and placed on a ventilator. He died on Wednesday, “with immediate cause of death listed as septic shock due to COVID-19 pneumonia.”

At the Lexington Federal Medical Center in Kentucky, where Torres was incarcerated, 212 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Four Lexington inmates have died. As of Thursday, BOP reported that 1,735 federal inmates had confirmed positive COVID-19 tests and 59 inmates have died.

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