Robyn Hamilton used drugs and had “bad thinking,” in her words, and she was caught up in a drug conspiracy that netted her a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. The judge in her trial did not want to sentence her as he was compelled to.
“Just so the record is clear, if the – if this Court had the discretion … this sentence would be much, much lower based on all of the reasonable and well thought-out sentencing factors.”
—Hon. Judge John Gerrard
In 2015, when Robyn Hamilton was sentenced in Nebraska for her role in a drug conspiracy case, U.S. District Judge John Gerrard called her the “poster child” against mandatory minimum sentencing laws, lamenting that he was required to send her to prison for 10 years. (Leo Guthmiller, who came before the same judge the next year, echoed Robyn’s case; Judge Gerrard called Leo’s 10-year sentence “absolutely ridiculous.”)
“You are not an innocent person,” the judge said at sentencing. “You are a minimal part of the conspiracy. You had some idea of what was going on around the edges, and a short but certain prison sentence would have been most appropriate in this case, but given your particular history and background and your minimal and tangential participation in this conspiracy, a 10-year sentence is draconian.”
The sentence seems particularly tough, too, given the fact that by the time Robyn entered prison in Bryan, Texas, she had made great progress in turning her life around after years of drug addiction—and after a fateful connection with a group of people, a connection that would be her undoing.
Robyn’s formative years were marked by difficulties, including alcohol abuse from a young age. In her early twenties, she enlisted in the Army. But after suffering a broken hip during basic training, she was discharged and listed as AWOL when she couldn’t make a flight in time to get back to her base after leave. In 2008, her boyfriend was killed in an auto accident, just one week after Robyn found out she was pregnant with their second son. Soon after, Robyn, overwhelmed with grief, full-time school, work, and raising two young sons as a single parent, began abusing drugs. “When you start using,” explains her sister, Rochelle Klug, “you’re going to keep using.”
It was then that Robyn began using drugs with a group of people who would sometimes gather at her house, people who would later become her co-conspirators. Some would eventually testify against Robyn, alleging that she knew they were using her house as a “stash house” and that drug dealing was going on—the conspiracy for which she was charged.
However, well before she was arrested in April of 2013, Robyn had quit using and moved away from that group of people to the town of Hartington, where she lived with her fiancé, Ryan Sailors, and her children, and was working hard to turn her life around. “I decided to move away. I needed to get my family involved in a community where I could be the mother they needed. I was taking my kids to the library in town at least every other day, and spending the time with them that they needed and that I needed. I was working full-time and staying involved with the kids’ school, and we were doing things right.” She was working as a certified nurse’s aide and set to go to nursing school.
Robyn’s former life, though, eventually caught up with her when the government’s investigation of the drug conspiracy led to her arrest and conviction. The charge against Robyn carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. Robyn should not have been charged this way by the prosecutor, because she met all of Attorney General Eric Holder’s criteria (set out in a 2013 memo to prosecutors) for people who should not be charged with drug offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. But the prosecutor in her case nonetheless charged her with such quantities, a decision no one could reverse.
Robyn has denied being part of the conspiracy to distribute drugs—indeed, court documents describe her as “plainly among the least culpable of those involved in the conduct of a group”—but she deeply regrets her own drug use and the path on which it took her. “I did use drugs and I had bad thinking … I just didn’t change my lifestyle soon enough.” Her decision to plead not guilty and exercise her right to go to trial meant that she ended up with a longer sentence than her co-defendants did—they got sentencing breaks for pleading guilty. The judge lowered Robyn’s sentencing guidelines range by refusing to count some of her minimal criminal history (minor priors for which she’d spent a total of 14 days in jail) against her, but there was nothing he could do to avoid the 10-year mandatory prison term.
Judge Gerrard stated at sentencing: “Just so the record is clear, if the – if this Court had the discretion … this sentence would be much, much lower based on all of the reasonable and well thought-out sentencing factors.”
But the judge’s opinion and Robyn’s attempt at a clean slate made no difference in the end. Her appeal was rejected, and she is one year into her long mandatory minimum sentence. Her kids, Clayton (8) and Arlan (7), divide their lives between Robyn’s fiancé Ryan and relatives. “They talk about their mom all the time,” says Rochelle Klug.
“I am a positive type of person,” Robyn says. “I keep myself busy. I have taken five parenting classes. I go to church two times a week. I am in two Bible studies. I take little education classes and have been in the Canine Companions for Independence program since December. I read and exercise five days a week. I practice playing the guitar at least once or twice a week. I miss my family so much. I try to call my kids before they go to school almost every morning so they can hear my voice.”
The Facts: Robyn Hamilton
Sentence: 10 years
Offense: Conspiracy 50 grams of more of methamphetamine (actual), 1 kilogram or more of heroin, and 5 kilograms of more of cocaine
Priors: Minor in possession of alcohol, DUIs, theft by insufficient funds check, issue bad check (less than $200)
Year sentenced: 2015
Age at sentencing: 33
Projected release date: 2025