Federal drug prosecutor Katharine J. Armentrout was only seconds out of a courtroom, after another episode in a seemingly endless series of sentencing hearings, when exasperation and sympathy poked through her case-hardened veneer.
"When are these kids gonna learn," she said, "that when they get involved in drug conspiracies, when they come in here on federal charges, we're gonna bang on 'em?"
Carvel L. Jones Jr., convicted of conspiracy in the Linwood "Rudy" Williams heroin case in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, had just been sent to federal prison for 15 years and eight months without parole -- for his first criminal offense.
Jones, 21, was part of Williams' conspiracy for at least five months, toting a gun to guard Namond Williams, Linwood Williams' drug-dealing nephew. Strict federal sentencing guidelines mandated a minimum, mandatory, no-parole prison term of at least 15 years for Jones.
A day earlier, Sean Wilson, another Namond Williams bodyguard barely into his 20s, had received a similar sentence for similar work.
Ms. Armentrout is an assistant U.S. attorney who heads a federal drug task force in Baltimore. She said later that she wishes the message of deterrence inherent in the guidelines requiring strict sentences would spread faster and wider, particularly among the young people who ruin their lives selling drugs.
"We care about the community we live in. We really care," she said of the work she and her fellow prosecutors do in court. "I'm not going soft on them [defendants]. We can't weasel around the guidelines. We have to do what Congress told us to do, and I'm not quarreling with that.
"But I just don't think these kids realize what they're getting into."
Carvel Jones, she said, "came from a nice family. Sean Wilson, too. These are not running-the-street, nobody-cares-about-you kids. It's really frightening."
Jones and Wilson are not alone among first-time offenders who get socked with long, no-parole prison terms under the guidelines.
Assistant U.S. Attorney E. Thomas Roberts, who supervises federal narcotics cases in Maryland, points to a litany of multiple-defendant proceedings that pack the court docket.
In every case, he said, there are "at least one or two" defendants such as Jones and Wilson -- first offenders, often in their teens or just out of them, who get long sentences because of their connections to main-stream drug dealers who sell large quantities of cocaine, crack and heroin.
Under federal law, defendants can be convicted of conspiracy if they are involved with one or more people as buyers or sellers of drugs.
And if the government can prove it was "reasonably foreseeable" that their drug activities were part of a larger operation, their penalties -- depending on the amount of drugs involved -- can range from 10 years to life, all without parole.
* Samantha Wallace, 24, once arranged for a friend to buy an ounce of cocaine from Tommy Lee Canty Jr. Canty imported drugs from East and West Coast sources and distributed them throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area in the late 1980s.
Prosecutors tied Wallace to five kilograms of Canty's cocaine through her friend's 1-ounce purchase, and contended she was part of Canty's conspiracy under the "reasonably foreseeable" standard. She was sentenced to 12 years and seven months without parole.
Canty, who was 23 when he was convicted, got life without parole for running the operation.
* Jimmy Williamston, 23, another Linwood Williams co-defendant, was acquitted of conspiracy but convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute it.
Federal agents found less than an ounce of cocaine in Williamston's home. But they connected him and his associates to several guns, and wiretaps established that he managed street dealers for distributor Gerald Gray.
Williamston had no prior convictions. But prosecutors sought an enhanced sentence based on his pivotal role in Gray's network. He got 20 years without parole.
* Dwayne Foster, 21, was caught with 2 ounces of crack in a round-up of the alleged gang of Paul Winestock. Foster pleaded guilty to a conspiracy count and testified for the prosecution at Mr. Winestock's current trial in U.S. District Court. Despite his cooperation, Foster can expect a no-parole prison term of 12 to 14 years under the guidelines, prosecutors say.
* Martha Grisales, wife of convicted Colombian cocaine dealer ,, Nefdale Grisales, and Beatrice Taylor, a family friend, both face minimum, mandatory sentences of at least 10 years without parole for working in Nefdale Grisales' distribution network.
They didn't handle cocaine. They translated drug deals because Nefdale Grisales doesn't speak English.
* Namond Williams, 23, referred to his distribution of drugs for his uncle Linwood as "my little activities." He complained to the judge who sentenced him last week that he "just got caught up" in his uncle's drug-dealing.