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Justice denied

Published November 19, 2004 12:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"A man who is not a liberal at 16 has no heart; a man who is not a conservative at 60 has no head."

- BENJAMIN DISRAELI

British Prime Minister, 1874-1880

And, as Queen Victoria's favorite minister might say today, a system that would legislate, seek and impose the kind of prison sentence slapped on a small-time Utah drug dealer Tuesday has neither a heart nor a head.

It took U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell 67 pages to attempt to rationalize his ruling that effectively sent 25-year-old Weldon Angelos to prison for life. Angelos was convicted by a jury on 16 drug, money-laundering and firearms counts. It was the weapons possession part, mere possession, that invoked a mandatory minimum sentence of 55 years.

So, despite arguments both logical and humane from Angelos' attorneys, his family and 29 former federal judges and prosecutors that such a sentence is unconstitutionally cruel for a first-time felon who never fired a shot in anger, 55 years it will be.

Even Cassell found the sentence "unjust and irrational." Eighteen years, he said, would be in keeping with reasonable sentencing practices. But he said he had no choice but to carry out the congressional mandate to impose a harsh sentence that, prosecutors said, would "send a message."

Making choices, though, is what judges do. It's why we have them, learned scholars of justice and the law, rather than rubber-stamping clerks or, these days, computers.

The argument that all the pain of this case, especially the fact that Angelo's 5- and 6-year-old sons will grow up without their father, began with the criminal's own actions is true. But it is not just. And it lets too many public officials, the people who act in our name, off the hook.

Rather than deter crime, such harsh sentences are more likely to deter justice. They encourage suspects to fight or flee, friends to cover up for them, witnesses to stay silent and police and prosecutors to leave their consciences at the door.

Rather than find the law unconstitutional and let aggrieved prosecutors appeal, Cassell passed the buck. He urged Congress to reconsider the law and the president to shed some executive grace on Angelos by commuting his sentence to something much shorter.

But, in a nation where politicians of all stripes are indecently fearful of appearing soft on crime, it is only Thanksgiving turkeys that receive presidential pardons.

The genius of our constitutional system is that any of the three branches of government can save us from the foolishness of the other two with, as the case may be, a vote, a veto or a ruling. In this case, as with all mandatory sentencing laws, all three branches have failed us.