Last week, Opposing Views told you about a new study on the insanity of mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have sent people to prison for what amounts to life terms, for such crimes as shoplifting, siphoning gas and handing out LSD at a Grateful Dead concert.
One of the most prominent victims of mandatory sentencing laws, a small-time Utah rap music producer named Weldon Angelos, will get out of prison soon if President Barack Obama heeds a petition backed by more than 100 big-name Americans from across the political spectrum.
Angelos, then a 23-year-old father of two with no prior adult criminal history, got slammed in 2004 with a 55-year federal prison sentence for selling small amounts of marijuana to police informants.
His backers include former FBI Director William Sessions, Pentagon Papers leaker and political activist Daniel Ellsberg, singer Graham Nash, former U.S. Senator Jake Garn and 109 more public officials, celebrities, politicians and other prominent names who wrote an open letter to Obama last week calling for the president to commute Angelos’s sentence.
The pot that Angelos (pictured, center) sold, in total, was worth about $350. But police said that Angelos was carrying a gun during the sales — though he never brandished it. They also found guns in a search of his home, they charged.
Angeleos denied the gun charge so strongly that he turned down a plea bargain which could have given him a shorter sentence. In fact, for two of the marijuana deals, the charge that he was packing a firearm was not added until several months after his arrest.
But under federal minimum sentencing laws, carrying a gun during a drug transaction carries a mandatory sentence of five years for a first offense, 25 years for each subsequent offense.
Angelos was convicted of selling pot three times, each time with a gun on his person. His sentence totaled 55 years. Federal sentences carry no possibility of parole. Without action from the president, Angelos will rot in prison until he is almost 90 years old.
Even the federal judge who sentenced Angelos, Paul G. Cassell, called the prison term “unjust, cruel and irrational.” But Cassell said the law tied his hands.
Cassell called on then-President George W. Bush to commute the sentence to 18 years, to no avail.
In the letter to Obama, the 114 signers described the absurdity of a 55-year sentence for Angelos’s crimes:
Incredibly, Mr. Angelos’s sentence is longer than those imposed for three aircraft hijackings, three second-degree murders, three kidnappings, or three rapes,” they wrote. “In fact, the 55-year sentence for possessing a firearm three times in connection with minor marijuana offenses is more than twice the federal sentence for a kingpin of a major drug trafficking ring in which a death results, and more than four times the sentence for a marijuana dealer who shoots an innocent person during a drug transaction.
Perhaps unfortunately for Angelo, and despite the image of Obama promulgated by conservatives as a criminal-coddling left-wing crazy, the current president has shown almost no mercy to convicted felons — less, in fact than any U.S. president in history who has served at least one full term. Obama has granted only one sentence commutation and 39 pardons in five years.
Sources: Forbes, Salt Lake Tribune, Hinterland Gazette