In 2005, Antonio Cruzado Jr. was attending a training conference for drug counselors in Cambridge when the life he had rebuilt after recovering from heroin addiction fell apart in an instant.
It was the morning after he had learned that a close friend’s son had been murdered, and he took a large amount of Klonopin and snorted heroin. In a drug-induced haze, he stole a car from a gas station and an employee chased after him, opened the door, and clung to the moving car for several blocks before he fell. Minutes later, Cruzado crashed into a car carrying a pregnant woman and her daughter, according to prosecutors.
No one was seriously hurt and Cruzado, then 36 and living in Springfield, had no history of violence, according to court filings. But because he had been convicted twice a decade earlier for drug trafficking, he was prosecuted under the state’s “three strikes” law, used to target repeat offenders. He was found guilty of unarmed robbery as a habitual offender in 2006 and sentenced to life in prison.
“I’m not mad at the system, I’m mad at myself,” Cruzado, 52, who has been imprisoned for 16 years, said in a telephone interview from MCI-Norfolk. “I could have killed somebody that day.”
But Cruzado’s supporters, including two lawmakers, former co-workers, friends, and relatives, say his punishment is unjustly harsh and shows how habitual offender laws can reinforce racial disparities that run through the criminal justice system.
“Nobody should be in prison this long for this crime,” said State Representative Lindsay Sabadosa, a Northampton Democrat who wrote a letter to Governor Charlie Baker and the Massachusetts Parole Board on Cruzado’s behalf. “It’s over-sentencing at its worst.”
The parole board held a hearing on his parole bid in August but has yet to issue a decision.
Massachusetts’ three strikes law calls for felons to receive the maximum penalty for their third offense if their previous two convictions resulted in prison sentences of at least three years. The judge who presided over Cruzado’s 2006 trial said the law required him to impose the mandatory maximum for unarmed robbery: life in prison. In 2012, the Legislature strengthened the law to eliminate parole eligibility or probation for repeat offenders convicted of violent crimes.
State Senator Will Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat and a chief author of the state’s 2018 criminal justice reform law, said the Legislature should review the law, which “sounds like it makes sense on its face but in practice it can have unfair consequences.”
In December, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of a defendant who appealed his third-strike sentence, finding that the law is ambiguous because even though it calls for the maximum sentence for all habitual offenders, it doesn’t explicitly bar probation for nonviolent offenders. The court said judges may order probation in limited cases involving defendants whose past crimes did not involve violence.
To critics, the ruling reinforced their belief that the law has in some cases been applied unjustly.
State Rep. Nika Elugardo, a Democrat who represents Boston and Brookline and wrote to Baker on Cruzado’s behalf, said the three strikes law is deeply flawed. She said Cruzado’s life sentence for stealing a car while struggling with mental illness and drug addiction is “a concrete example of structural inequity.”
Luz Medina, who has known Cruzado for 20 years and worked with him at a drug recovery center, said prosecutors didn’t consider the seven years he was drug-free after his previous time behind bars, or the work he was doing when he relapsed and stole the car.
“They just saw a Spanish guy in a white community, committing a crime,” she said. “They buried him.”
It’s unclear how many people have been sentenced as habitual offenders because the state doesn’t compile such data annually, according to a spokeswoman for the court. But it appears to be rare, based on surveys of the state’s sentencing practices conducted over the past decade by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission. Its last survey, for the 2018 fiscal year, found that 13 people were sentenced as habitual offenders. Only one, who was convicted of home invasion, received a life sentence.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe said his office has used the habitual offender law to prosecute five people over the past five years for crimes that included burglary, assault with a dangerous weapon, firearms charges, and drug trafficking. None of those cases resulted in life sentences, he said.
“There are some people that the rest of us need to be protected from and we can’t lose sight of that,” O’Keefe said. “While we want to be enlightened in how we deal with crime and punishment and we want to be smart about it, we have to, at some level, think about victims.”
Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan said her office rarely seeks indictments under the law but has used it to take violent repeat offenders off the street, including a serial rapist who was sentenced to life without parole in 2016 after raping and beating a woman at knifepoint in her Arlington home.
“It was intended for those circumstances where somebody was just inflicting so much harm — and had been through the system a number of times — that their offenses cried out for a more extreme sentence,” Ryan said.
Ryan, who was not yet in office when Cruzado was prosecuted, said she would not oppose his parole if he has stable housing and continues to receive drug treatment.
Cruzado, who has participated in drug and mental health programs in prison, told the parole board he has strong support from his family and will continue to better himself if released.
Michael Waryasz, a lawyer who began representing Cruzado six years ago, said Cruzado never should have been convicted under the three strikes law, describing the circumstances as “kind of a perfect storm.” Prosecutors offered to drop the habitual offender charge against Cruzado before trial if he pleaded guilty to an array of charges in exchange for a 9-to-12-year sentence. But Cruzado, who was suffering from mental illness, refused the deal, he said.
At trial, Cruzado was acquitted of assault with intent to murder but convicted of unarmed robbery, which led to his life sentence as a habitual offender and several other charges, including assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (the car).
Since the 1990s, a majority of states and the federal government have adopted three strikes laws, but many have since reversed course. In California, the law was enacted in 1994 as a way to keep rapists, murderers, and child molesters behind bars, said Michael Romano, director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School. But instead, nearly 10,000 people were sentenced to life in prison under the law for nonviolent crimes, Romano said. They included a man who stole a pair of socks and a person who broke into a soup kitchen to get food, he said.
“You are really crushing people’s lives,” said Romano, adding that the law disproportionately impacted people of color, people with mental illness, and the poor. In 2012, California voters amended the law, leading to the release of thousands of people.
Born in Puerto Rico, Cruzado moved to Springfield when he was 16 and lived with an uncle who sold drugs, according to court records. Cruzado became addicted to heroin and also sold drugs. When he was 26, he was sentenced to prison for the second time for selling cocaine and heroin.
It was a turning point, he said. When he was paroled in 1998 after more than three years in prison, Cruzado spent time in a residential treatment program and later became a drug counselor. He married a woman with a 2-year-old daughter, whom he raised as his own, and had three more children.
But the marriage didn’t last and Cruzado said he fell into a depression. He stopped receiving treatment for depression and anxiety after his health insurance expired and began taking Klonopin that had been prescribed for his girlfriend, according to court filings.
“I was overwhelmed,” he said in an interview. “I was helping other people but I was unable to help myself.”
He had a panic attack during the training conference, then stole the car to get home to Springfield, his lawyer said.
Cruzado’s stepdaughter, Sandra Lee Lozada, a psychiatric nurse in California, described him as a gentle, kind, caring person who was failed by the system.
“I just feel it’s injustice,” she said of his life sentence. “It’s not the way to deal with someone who is relapsing and going through a mental health crisis.”