Ex-Florida prison officer gets 25-year term for child molestation; other charges pending

In the summer, a jury ruled that Keith Mitchell Turner, a former state corrections lieutenant, was guilty of two counts of lewd or lascivious molestation of a child younger than 12.

At his sentencing hearing, held Monday afternoon at the Ocala courthouse, a quiet Turner, wearing a yellow Marion County Jail jumpsuit, sat, listened and watched the proceeding via Zoom from the lockup.

After hearing from Turner's lawyer, the prosecutor and two women, Circuit Judge Lisa Herndon told Turner he's going to serve 25 years in prison followed by a lifetime sex-offender probation. The 37-year-old must register as a sexual predator, cannot go anywhere juveniles frequent, and is forbidden to contact the victim. Turner has 140 days of credit for time already served at the jail.

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Reaction to Turner's sentence

Turner's legal woes are not over. He still faces charges of sexual battery on a person 12 to 18, lewd or lascivious molestation on a child younger than 12, and lewd or lascivious exhibition by person 18 or older. That case is ongoing.

Debra Bennett-Austin, founder of a nonprofit organization called Change Comes Now, was present in the courtroom Monday when Turner learned his fate.

A sign posted at Lowell Correctional Institution after Turner's sentence.
A sign posted at Lowell Correctional Institution after Turner's sentence.

Bennett-Austin, who knows Turner from her time in prison and has appeared at many of his hearings, was pleased with the outcome.

"Finally, a little of justice. Keith Turner won't be beating any more women in prison, will he?" she said.

Bennett-Austin was making reference to former inmate Cheryl Weimer, who was allegedly beaten by Turner and another former guard, Ryan Dionne, at Lowell Correctional Institution, the women's prison north of Ocala, in late August 2019.

Prosecutors reviewed the incident and decided not to charge either man because there was insufficient evidence to prove the injury was intentional or a result of culpable negligence.

The incident left Weimer a quadriplegic. She sued the state Department of Corrections and received a $4.65 million settlement. 

Statements before sentencing

Cheryl Weimar
Cheryl Weimar

On Monday, at the podium, the victim's mother read aloud a short prepared statement to the court. She said she wants Turner to be held accountable, and doesn't want him to ever inflict pain on another girl. She said she hopes he will never see the light of day, or breath fresh air.

The Star-Banner is not publishing the woman's name because that would identify the victim. During the trial, the victim told the court that Turner touched her private area, and forced her to touch his, when they were watching a college football game on TV.

Turner's mother told the court that while she understands her son was convicted of a crime, he is a loving, caring, nurturing person who's hard working and takes care of his wife and children.

She said there are two sides to every story and she knows that her son would never commit such a crime.

Defense attorney Christopher Dunham of Dunham and Ingram, an Ocala law firm, asked Turner if he wanted to say anything. Turner declined.

Latest motion for continuance denied

Christopher Dunham
Christopher Dunham

Five days before his client's court appearance, Dunham filed a motion to continue the hearing. He said he was notified by a Lowell Correctional Institutional officer that a juror in Turner's case "may have been compromised."

The lawyer said he has been unable to get any response from the prison, and the prosecutor was not given any information based on the belief that the records were exempt from disclosure.

Dunham said he has issued subpoenas and needs time for a response. He wanted a delay until February.

It wasn't the first time the defense had filed a motion to continue. Two months ago, Dunham filed a similar motion, five days before sentencing, and it was granted by the judge. Last month, Dunham again filed a motion to continue, a day before Turner's sentencing, and it also was accepted by the judge.

Dunham's third motion to continue was denied, and Herndon set the hearing for Nov. 28.

Lawyers make their case to the judge

Assistant State Attorney Adam Smith, left, talks with Assistant Public Defender Mike Novak at trial.
Assistant State Attorney Adam Smith, left, talks with Assistant Public Defender Mike Novak at trial.

Assistant State Attorney Adam Smith told the court on Monday that the charges are serious and he thought Turner should be sentenced to a 50-year prison term.

The defense said even though Turner was found guilty, there was no physical evidence. Dunham said 50 years behind bars was too much, and asked the court to consider Turner's service to the state.

State prison officials said Turner worked as a corrections officer for more than 12 years.

Contact Austin L. Miller at austin.miller@starbanner.com

This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: Ex-Florida corrections officer convicted, jailed for child molestation