SALT LAKE CITY, UT: In an egregious example of the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing, Weldon Angelos, age 25, was reluctantly sentenced today by Judge Paul Cassell (D. Utah) to 55 years and 1 day in prison, with no possibility of parole, for a first time drug offense with possession of a gun. Calling the sentence "unjust and cruel and even irrational," Judge Cassell explained that he had no choice but to sentence Angelos, as mandated by federal law. The ruling was met with disappointment and sorrow from a crowd of sentencing reform advocates holding a banner and signs outside.
The sentence came despite Cassell's expressed ambivalence to the mandated, no-parole sentence during a dramatic sentencing hearing last September where he decided to delay his decision. During the September hearing, Judge Cassell highlighted the 14th amendment equal protection clause of the Constitution. "In other words," wrote Judge Cassell, "a forty-year-old guilty of two prior serious violent felonies and now found guilty of first degree murder is eligible for parole at the age of 70 after only serving 30 years of a mandatory life sentence."
"This is the most difficult case I've had since taking the bench," Judge Cassell said during today's sentencing. Judge Cassell agreed with defense attorney Jerome Mooney that the punishment does not fit the crime in Angelos' case, but because of the congressionally mandated sentencing laws, his hands were tied. In a scathing condemnation of mandatory minimums, Cassell stated that there is no conceivable justification for mandatory minimums, and called on Congress to modify the laws. Judge Cassell will be releasing his 67-page decision shortly.
Cassell's decision came amidst a wind of change for sentencing laws, with the imminent decisions of United States vs. Booker and United State vs. Fanfan cases almost certain to dramatically change the structure of federal sentencing laws. Mandatory sentencing laws have long provoked widespread opposition. In a "friend of the court" brief, 29 former federal judges and U.S. Attorneys argued that the 55-year mandatory minimum sentence required for Angelos is grossly disproportionate to the crime and thus unconstitutional. The ruling came nearly one year after a September 2003 public opinion poll by Dan Jones & Associates, Inc found that 64-percent of Utahns believe that judges, not lawmakers, should determine appropriate prison sentence.
"This case is an outrageous example of the dangers of mandatory sentencing," said Julie Stewart, president of the non-partisan, DC-based sentencing reform organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums, with 35,000 members and 40 chapters nationwide. "Legislators who have never laid eyes on the defendants should not determine their sentences. When they do, it results in dramatic injustices like Angelos', wasting lives and scarce prison resources to incarcerate a defendant the government once offered a plea of 16 years. Judge Cassell was forced to participate in this glaring injustice, and it was clear he didn't like it one bit."
Based on data from the federal Bureau of Prisons, the average annual cost for incarcerating an individual for a year is $22,000. Taxpayers will pay approximately $1,342,000 to incarcerate Angelos for what may be the rest of his natural life.
Of the 160,000 federal prisoners in 2001, 55 percent were drug offenders. More than half of those receiving mandatory drug sentences were first-time offenders, and nearly 90 percent were nonviolent. Mandatory sentences are rarely imposed on the drug "kingpins" for whom they were intended. Nearly nine out of 10 drug offenders were low- or medium- level participants in the drug trade.
"We are devastated," said Angelos' wife Zandrah Angelos, the mother of his two small children. "Our children will grow up without their daddy. I know he was guilty of selling marijuana, but the punishment should fit the crime. This doesn't make any sense. He'll serve more time than some really serious offenders."
Said defense attorney Jerome Mooney, "This is a horrendous example of the disparity in punishment based only on charge filing choices. If prosecuted under Utah state law, Mr. Angelos would have faced about 6 years. Under the federal sentencing guidelines alone he would have received about seven years. Why should charging decisions alone make the difference between 6 or 7 years and life?"