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My Valentine's Day: 28 Years Ago Today I Was Sentenced to 15-to-Life

My wife held her face in her hands, tears streaming down her cheeks: the vision would haunt me for years to come.

Today I heard a piece on National Public Radio about the Rockefeller drug laws. It struck me hard – real hard. That's because 28 years ago today, on Valentine's Day, I blew trial and was sentenced to 15 years to life under the Rockefeller drug laws.

I had delivered four ounces of cocaine for $500 straight into the hands of undercover narcotic officers in Westchester County. A bowling buddy had set me up in a sting operation when he noticed my car kept breaking down and I was arriving late for my bowling league. He knew I was desperate for cash. It was the biggest mistake I ever made.

I remember my last day as a free man as clear as a bell. I sat in the back of the courtroom with my wife Marylou. Our six-year-old daughter was not there because we did not want to put her through the shit we were going through. I had been on bail for a year and was facing hard time.   

After the final arguments, Judge Marasco briefed the jury on deciding a verdict. I sat there, dry-mouthed, the world spinning out of control, catching only snippets of what he was saying: “…must prove…beyond a reasonable doubt…consider the evidence…agree on a verdict…should be as follows….”

I tried to focus, but part of me already knew I’d lost.

“ …the first count, criminally selling a controlled substance in the first degree, either guilty or not guilty. On the second count, criminal possession of a controlled substance in the first degree, either guilty or not guilty….”

The jury left the courtroom at 2:43pm. A half-hour later, the jury sent a note to the judge asking to hear an inaudible tape that was the main piece of evidence against me. They also relied on a transcript that the undercover cops created from the tape, putting words in my mouth. It was unreal, like a nightmare. They did this four times, concentrating mainly on the tape. Some jurors even timed the alleged transaction, opening and closing an imaginary envelope and smelling its contents. At the end of a grueling day, the judge recessed until the following morning. I knew it was my last night as a free man.

I thought about running. I called up Johnny Payne, who was a bowling buddy. “You gotta lend me some money,” I said, my voice cracking. “I gotta run away.” He tried to discourage me, told me I was overreacting. And besides, he said, did I want to spend the rest of my life as a wanted man? It seemed like a better choice than 15 years in prison, I said.

I stayed up all night. My wife and daughter lay on each side of me in our bed. I clutched them tightly and stared at the religious candles my wife had lit, praying for strength and guidance. I had no money, no place to go. My only real choice was to go back to court and pray for the best. My wife and daughter needed me. It wouldn’t do them any good if I ran.

The next day, deliberations on People vs. Papa continued until 3:30pm, when a verdict was finally made. At the time, I was sitting with my wife in the hallway. The doors of the courtroom swung open and two court officers came out.

“If you have a wallet,” one of them said, “you better give that and any other personal belongings to your wife.”

“Standard procedure,” assured the other, when he saw the look of panic on my face.