Mandatory Minimum Sentence Changes a Life

For John Forté, life has had a dramatic ascent -- and an equally dramatic drop. Born into humble circumstances, he became a major success in his chosen career -- and now languishes in a federal prison.

But parts of the glamorous life he once led are still with him. One celebrity family is even fighting so that he can put his life on the upswing again.

Forté, 29, was raised by a single mother in Brooklyn, N.Y. But he was a prodigy when it came to music, and when he was 13, earned a full scholarship to the prestigious Exeter academy.

Friends at Exeter introduced him to another musically talented young man: Ben Taylor, the son of entertainers Carly Simon and James Taylor.

"We found common ground in the variety of our musical selection -- the fact that we listened to everything," Forté said.

He became a part of their family, spending a summer in their house on Martha's Vineyard. "When John was here it was just always a happier healthier universe in this house," Simon said.

Partly fueled by the interest and support of his adopted musical family, Forté's career took off. He produced music for Public Enemy, Black Eyed Peas and the Fugees. He even rapped on a Michael Jackson CD.

By 25, he had won a Grammy for best rap album and a nomination for album of the year with the Fugees for 'The Score.'

"Regardless of the money that I make or the millions of records that I sell, I'm still going to stay where I'm from," he told ABC News' Charlie Gibson in a 1998 interview.

But then that rise to fame came to an abrupt halt.

A Wrong Turn

By 2000, Forté's music career had stalled and his label had dropped him. He had an idea to put out a new album independently. "Everybody else was doing it," he said. But he needed money.

Forté met a man who offered him $10,000 to recruit two women to move what he says he thought was money from Houston to Newark, N.J.

He says he did not think that the women could be carrying drugs. "One could assume all day long, but I did not know it had to be drugs," he said.

Simon defended Forté: "You can know and not know at the same time." She said she thought she could imagine Forté thinking that "this is not my bad deal. It's their bad deal."

The women got stopped at the Houston airport. Undercover agents found more than 30 pounds of liquid cocaine in their bags. The women identified Forté as their contact.

When Forté turned up in Newark, authorities jailed him. He was told the women were carrying drugs. "They said 'You know what's going on here,'" he remembered. "I was stuck. I was completely stuck."

Sparring with the Judge

Forté had the right to one phone call. He called Simon. She remembers it as "one of those horrific moments that you hear that your son has to have an operation."

"It was like when I found out Ben had to have his kidney out," she said. "I was so shocked."

Simon's son Ben hired a lawyer, and Simon herself offered to post bail. But it was unusually high: "The judge asked for my farm," she said.

Ben Taylor says he thought the judge was upset that Forté had brought celebrities into his courthouse, and that the high bail was a bit of a bluff.

Forté's lawyer negotiated and the judge reduced the bail to $250,000, which Simon posted. Simon says she "had complete faith that I'd get that money back "

After the hearing though, something unusual happened. The judge asked for a private hearing with Simon and asked for her autograph, Taylor said. "He sort of did the whole fan thing."

"I think it's pretty despicable but it really doesn't faze me," he said.

Protest Over Sentencing

In 2001, Forté stood trial and was convicted. Although it was his first offense, he received a mandatory sentence: 14 years in a federal penitentiary. Forté will not be free until he is at least 38 years old.

Simon thinks this is outrageous, especially considering the average sentence for manslaughter is less than five years. Moreover, the man who hired Forté struck a deal with prosecutors and faced no jail time at all.

For the past three years, the singer has worked tirelessly on reforming the mandatory minimum laws and getting Forté a new trial. "I'm prepared to fight this until the last possibility is exercised," Simon said.

Many judges -- both liberal and conservative -- agree with her on mandatory minimum sentences. They say the rules leave them unable to use their own discretion in evaluating individual cases.

Even Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court calls them "harsh and unjust."

Keeping Hope Alive

Both Simon and Forté acknowledge that he did something wrong, but that the punishment is unjust. They say community service is more appropriate.

Simon knows that some people might say Forté has gotten what he deserves, but she says the world and Forté himself are better off on the outside of prison, teaching people about the ills of drug use.

Forté said that is what he plans to do that when he is released. He wants to help vulnerable kids turn away from what he calls "the foolishness."

But for the moment, Simon and her son do their best to keep Forté's spirits up. They work with him on music. Taylor has written a song for his friend, and Simon records his raps over the phone.

"I'd probably be dead without hope," Forté said. "Everyday I wake up and I say, 'you know what? Today is the day that something good is going to happen.'"