"I was a single father. I remember seeing my kids in the courtroom the day I got a life sentence. It crushed my soul."
Ismael Rosa's melodic salsa vocals and his orchestra La Justicia lit up stages in the 1980's. He six-day career in a federal drug conspiracy cost him his life’s freedom. Ismael had never spent a single day in prison before his mandatory life sentence. The father of five was buried alive under America’s 3 Strikes Drug law.
Harsh “three strikes” drug laws were sold to the American people as a way to ensure violent and repeat drug dealers are off the street. There is no parole in federal prison. A mandatory life sentence means the person will die there - absent some extraordinary relief like Presidential clemency or a change in law. Once a prosecutor demands a life sentence, the judge is handcuffed.
Ismael Rosa's case was no exception. The prosecutor demanded a life sentence because Ismael refused to become a government witness and asked for a trial. From that point forward, the judge played absolutely no role in determining Ismael’s sentence. Ismael was not a big kingpin drug dealer. His first two strikes were both for simple cocaine possession and he got probation. His first strikes happened during the height of Ismael’s music career and, unfortunately, during the height of his cocaine addiction. Years later, the federal prosecutor insisted that those two prior probations required Ismael to forfeit the full balance of his life's freedom.