After Pleading Innocent, This Cannabis Convict's Sentence Went from 4 Years to Life

Ismael Lira’s legal nightmare started over a decade ago when he and his ex-wife were detained at a checkpoint near the Mexican border. Police had found 6.7 lbs of marijuana on someone else, who said Lira gave them the cannabis. Lira faced charges for conspiracy to transport marijuana, but things got even worse when he pleaded innocent.

Instead of pleading guilty and receiving a lighter sentence, Lira took the case to trial, where prosecutors upped the charge by pinning another 400 lbs. of cannabis on him after discovering the stash on another person's property. That other person testified that he did not know Lira, but the prosecution nevertheless maintained the charges, characterized Lira as a kingpin and sentenced to life without parole.

Now 14 years later, he’s still in prison. Had he pled guilty, he would have been free 10 years ago, but now he might never leave Terre Haute USP. His last clemency request was denied by President Obama, and he has another one in the works with President Trump. But while the country's most recent leaders don't see a clean-cut case to release Lira, his fellow inmates see things much differently. 

"They don't feel that I deserve to be in prison for marijuana," Lira told Civilized recently. "They say that I don't deserve it, that it's not right. There's a lot of people with messed up crimes and they got less time than me. Everyone's smoking weed basically, all over the United States, and I got a life sentence for it, so I dunno."

A lot of them are surprised because they see convicts serving much shorter sentences for much more serious crimes.

"There's really not a crime that I haven't seen in prison, and they really don't get much time. The only difference is that most of them pled guilty and they didn't take it to trial. When you talk to someone who went to trial, 9 out of 10 have a life sentence. It's very common. And it's kind of like you just get lost in the system."

I know your sentence was so long partially because you went to trial, but do you feel that your race also played a role in your sentencing?

I would say yes. It feels like that. Sometimes I wish more than anything that I could get the top lawyers in every state, whether it be New York or Florida. The average top lawyer charges $500 an hour. It doesn't seem like there's too many people wanting to do the right thing. It's a crazy way to explain it, but that's the way it seems.

Do you feel like your income affected your defense?

I didn't have anything, I didn't have no houses, any kind of bank account with a lot of money, I was just kind of making it day to day. I feel that absolutely, if I had the book of money that i'm accused of having, you know, it would have been a different story.

What's one of the biggest misconceptions about prison that you've seen on TV or in movies?

That's a good question. Pretty much everything that you see on TV is not good. But you've got some people who are trying to change. Even though there's not many, there's some people that are trying to change, and it's the ones that are trying to change that I enjoy being with, because I've made enough mistakes in my life and I definitely don't need to be going down that road.

What's the hardest part about being in prison for so long?

Knowing everything that was done wrong in my case, you know what I mean? I'm alleged to have over 30 million dollars, and yet I'm working for 64 dollars a month in prison. I get paid 40 cents an hour. If I was even close to having any kind of money, I wouldn't be stuck doing that.

It's just hard knowing that I’m in here for marijuana, and I've never even been busted for marijuana, but you're accusing me of giving somebody marijuana and not even the person who gets busted for marijuana is saying it's my marijuana. It should be real simple. You give somebody weed and they get up on the stand and they say, “Yes, you gave me the weed”. Okay, fine, I'm 110 per cent cool with that, that's the right way to do it. But when you have the actual defendants getting up on the stand saying, “Look, I don't know who this guy is, this guy never gave me nothing, we never talked about a conspiracy,” that's the hardest part, you know what I mean?

On paper right now, I'm a big old drug lord, I'm a big old kingpin, and that's just not what it is.

How has this been for your family and your friends?

I would say my mom is hurting more than I'm hurting. They all hurt, you know what I mean? I dunno, sometimes I feel like they try to keep hope but it's been so long. It's always the same thing, when I'm talking to them, I'm like, "Everything is okay." And I don't ever want to tell them anything to make them worried or anything like that, but I can hear the hurt in their voice. I can hear that they miss me.

Do you think it's ever justifiable to sentence someone to life for a nonviolent crime?

Absolutely not. A life sentence is crazy. You'd think they'd want to rehabilitate you.

Do you think there is a reasonable punishment for what you are alleged to have done?

I was looking at 58 months, had I pled guilty, and I would have gotten a two point reduction, so I would have been looking at 46 months. I think that’s reasonable.

If you could change one thing about prison life, what would it be?

I would say more programming, really. I mean, there's some good programming, but there could be a lot more. Trades. Like, USP, where I’m at, there's no apprenticeships, there's nothing that can really help you out when you get out. A lot of lower security facilities, mediums and lows, they have a lot of that, so I'd say more programs that can help people get out there and do the right thing.

Right. And you've mentioned the food sucks, too.

Yeah, definitely. The food sucks.

How hopeful are you for the future of the criminal justice system and marijuana, and yourself?

That it's going to change? That i'm not going to die in prison? Right now, it's like 50/50. It's really hard to be in prison for marijuana, and I don't know. I'd love to say that I really feel like I'm going to [get out], but it hasn't happened yet.

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This Massachusetts Democrat - and 2020 presidential candidate - has a strong history of supporting veterans' access to medical marijuana. Over the years, Congressman Seth Moulton has acted as the primary sponsor on three cannabis-related bills—all of them focusing on improving veteran access to medical marijuana. As an Iraq War vet himself, Moulton has taken a strong stance in supporting the health and well-being of other veterans who continue to be barred from accessing medical marijuana - even in states where it's legal - because federal prohibition prevents Veterans Affairs from letting vets use medical cannabis.

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