When Valentine's Day means 15 to life: 34 years ago today, I was sentenced to prison

For me, February 14 is the day I was sentenced under the harsh Rockefeller laws as a first-time drug offender

Published February 14, 2019 2:00PM (EST)


Every Valentine’s Day I relive the day my life changed forever when I was sentenced to 15 years to life under the Rockefeller drug laws of New York State.

In 1985, 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. February 13, 1986. 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 drama 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 2:43 p.m. 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 John, 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 3:30 p.m., 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.

I was scared. I handed over my house keys and wallet. Now, I wanted to run. I sized up the two armed court officers and looked at the exit. The officer must have read my mind. He put his hand on the gun sitting in its holster. His gesture made my legs wobble. I was too weak to struggle. I knew it was the end.

The officers escorted me into the courtroom and steered me into my chair, each of them placing a hand on my shoulders.

Judge Marasco addressed the jury. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have your note, which reads as follows: ‘We have reached our decision.’” He then turned to the clerk. “The clerk will please read the verdict.”

The clerk nodded and addressed the leader of the jury. “Madam Forelady, please rise. Members of the jury, have you agreed upon a verdict?”

“Yes we have,” she said. It seemed ridiculous that none of the jurors knew that I was facing 15 years to life. The judge told them that they should only be concerned with whether or not I was guilty, not with the terms of punishment. On some occasions, I’d ridden the elevators up to the courtroom with members of the jury. I’d been tempted to shout: Do you know what I’m facing? But the judge had given me a direct order not to speak to them.

The clerk continued reading my fate:

“Members of the jury, as I read each count of the charges, please tell me how you find the accused under each count.” The forelady nodded.

“One, criminal sale of a controlled substance in the first degree.”


“Count two, criminal possession of a controlled substance in the first degree.”


It was over. Prison.

“Sorry, pal,” George, my lawyer, said, laying a hand on my shoulder. His other hand wiped a crocodile tear from his eye.

The court officers grabbed hold of my arms and told me to follow them. I was so shocked that fighting and running were the last things on my mind. As they pulled me away, I turned to Marylou. She was crying. That last vision of her, holding her face in her hands, tears streaming down her cheeks, was one that would haunt me for years to come.

Through choking sobs, she told me she would never leave me. As I walked away, I told her I loved her and wished her a happy Valentine’s Day. She reached forward to embrace me, but the guards blocked her. I was handcuffed and taken away. It was the end of my life as I knew it.

By Anthony Papa

Anthony Papa is manager of media relations at Drug Policy Alliance. Papa is the author of "This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency," his second memoir about his 18 years of freedom after imprisonment, and "15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom" (2004), a memoir about his experience of being sentenced to state prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense under New York’s draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws.

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