WATERLOO, Iowa -- Tommy Lee Farmer had never heard of the new federal three-strikes law until sheriff's deputies brought him into court last October.
That was when his lawyer gave him the bad news. Farmer had expected to face state charges for his role in a botched holdup of a supermarket here.
But three weeks earlier, President Clinton had signed a law intended to put incorrigible career criminals behind bars for life.
Farmer, the son of a minister and brother of a college professor, had spent most of his 43 years in jails or prisons for crimes that included murder, conspiracy to murder and armed robbery. Now he was learning that he was to be the first person in the nation charged under the law.
Last month -- in a sentence that so pleased Mr. Clinton that he interrupted his vacation to herald it as a milestone in American justice -- Farmer was sent to prison for life.
"Tommy Farmer is the perfect poster child, or man, for the three-strikes law," said Stephen J. Rapp, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa in Cedar Rapids, who prosecuted the case. "He has been through the criminal justice system repeatedly and didn't learn his lesson."
Farmer's lawyer, Alfredo Parrish, acknowledged that Farmer "has not led an exemplary life." But he also argued that because most of the previous charges against his client named him as an accessory, "his actual crimes are not as bad as they look, and for this, Tommy does not deserve to go away for life."
He said that his client had been singled out because he was black and that "black men are going to receive the brunt of this three-strikes law."
A review of Farmer's case suggests that in many ways he is the kind of career criminal who has frustrated critics of the criminal justice system for decades -- a violent repeat offender who, despite escaping from one prison and participating in the murder of an inmate in another, was repeatedly released after serving only a fraction of each sentence.
But his case also raises questions about whether the law will persuade criminals not to repeat violent crimes.
When Congress passed the bill last year and Mr. Clinton signed it, the law was trumpeted as an important new tool in fighting crime, a clear-cut solution to the seemingly inexorable rise in violence. But one year later, only 17 people have been charged under the law, and only Farmer has been sentenced.
Opponents have long dismissed the three-strikes concept as political posturing that is bound to prove ineffective, not only because it does not address the root causes of violence, but also because the majority of violent crimes do not fall under federal jurisdiction.
Farmer's case, and that of the 16 other men charged so far under the law, suggests that neither side was totally right or wrong and that it is too early to tell whether the law will have more than a symbolic effect in reducing crime.
Farmer, who had his first brush with the law when he was sent to an Iowa reformatory at age 16 for threatening teachers and fellow students with a knife, does not think that the law will be a deterrent.
"It is going to make a few guys think, but some other guys don't even watch TV or care; they don't know nothing about the law," Farmer said in a telephone interview. He spoke from the federal detention center in El Reno, Okla., as he waited to be transferred to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., where he is to spend the rest of his life.
In the rush to push the three-strikes bill through Congress, the measure's sponsor, Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, misrepresented research data. In an assertion that has often been repeated in political debates and in the press, he said that research had proved that 6 percent of repeat offenders accounted for 70 percent of all violent crimes.
In fact, the research to which Mr. Lott referred was conducted by Professor Marvin Wolfgang of the University of Pennsylvania and involved crime among juvenile delinquents in Philadelphia. No comprehensive, authoritative data exist on recidivism among adults.
Some Democrats felt the law neglected programs to prevent crime and feared it could eventually cost the government millions of dollars to keep elderly prisoners behind bars.
Philip B. Heymann, a former deputy attorney general who opposed the law, estimated that the law would cost the federal government up to $700,000 over the lifetime of each prisoner who was 50 or older.