Supporters of all stripes seek presidential action to free Utahn
An all-star cast of former politicians, judges and prosecutors, scholars, and religious and business leaders sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Wednesday asking him to commute the sentence of a Utah music producer who received a 55-year prison term for carrying a firearm while selling small amounts of marijuana.
Among the signatories are nearly a dozen Utahns: former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, former Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter, former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Zimmerman. They've joined forces with more than 100 other high-profile people across the country including former FBI Director William S. Sessions, singer/songwriter Graham Nash, motivational speaker and former rapper Napoleon, political activist Daniel Ellsberg and novelist Anne Lamott who believe Weldon Angelos effectively received a life sentence under a "notorious blunderbuss statute."
Angelos, then a 23-year-old successful musician and music producer and father of two young children, was a first-time offender with no adult record at the time of his 2003 conviction, the letter states. On three occasions in May and June 2002, Angelos sold small amounts of marijuana to a police informant. According to trial testimony, Angelos had a handgun with him during two of the drug transactions; police who later searched his apartment found several handguns there.
But his supporters point out Angelos never brandished or used a handgun and a case summary included with the letter says references to Angelos having a handgun during two drug deals were added months later to his case file documents.
Angelos "strongly denied" having a firearm and, because of that, he rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in a 15-year sentence for a single drug distribution and firearm count, according to the case summary. The U.S. attorney's office then got a new indictment with 20 charges, carrying a total possible sentence of 105 years in prison, and refused to reoffer a plea bargain.
In December 2003, after a seven-day trial, a jury convicted Angelos of 16 counts of drug trafficking, weapons possession and money laundering; the jury acquitted Angelos of three others and the judge dismissed one count.
Sentence imposed • A coalition of nearly 30 former federal judges and prosecutors, in a friend-of-the-court brief, urged then-U.S. District Judge Paul G. Cassell to not impose the mandatory term called for under the federal sentencing scheme.
The penalty for possessing a firearms during a drug transaction is a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the first offense and 25 years for each subsequent transaction. There is no parole in the federal system, which means offenders serve out their entire sentence.
At Angelos' sentencing in November 2004, Cassell said he had no choice but to impose the lengthy sentences mandated for the firearms charges, which he called "unjust, cruel and irrational" and "one of those rare cases where the system has malfunctioned." He recommended that then-President George W. Bush commute the sentence to no more than 18 years. Cassell exercised his judicial discretion on the remaining drug and money-laundering convictions, giving Angelos a one-day penalty.
Cassell, now a University of Utah law professor, declined comment Tuesday.
The U.S. attorney's office for Utah also declined to comment on the letter. In 2004, however, the office applauded the penalty as fair and a deterrent to others.
"This sends the message that people who engage in armed drug dealing are going to face very serious consequences," said assistant U.S. attorney Robert Lund after Angelos was sentenced.
In 2006, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the sentence; that same year, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Angelos' petition for a hearing.
Angelos is incarcerated at a federal prison in Lompoc, Calif.
'Doing OK' • "He is doing OK," said Lisa Angelos, Weldon's sister. "He is getting very excited for the submission of this letter and he is extremely overwhelmed with joy and appreciation [for] everyone's efforts [in helping] us get signatures. He feels extremely blessed to have so many people supporting him."
In a statement relayed by his sister, Angelos said that he and his family "are encouraged by this bipartisan show of support. It's certainly a diverse group of influential people, and we hope it makes a difference when President Obama decides who will receive clemency this holiday season."
The letter reiterates a point made by Cassell that Angelos' federal sentence is longer than that for such crimes as aircraft hijacking, second-degree murder, kidnapping and child rape.
"Had Mr. Angelos been charged in local state court ... he would have been paroled years ago," the letter to the president states.
A 2011 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission cited Angelos' case as an example of the "unduly severe sentences that stacking mandatory minimum penalties" required by federal statutes produces a problematic scenario noted by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in a Fox News interview earlier this year.
"We can't put a fellow like that in jail for 55 years," Hatch said, according to the letter.
The letter notes that during a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this summer, Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted Angelos will be nearly 80 when he is released; his children will be in their 60s. And taxpayers will have spent more than $1.5 million to keep him locked up.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, co-sponsored with Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 aimed at preventing "irrational and wasteful" sentences like that given to Angelos, notes the letter.
Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, is representing Angelos in his bid for clemency.
"As a lawyer, one of the challenging things about clemency is that the process is not transparent you don't know what is going on as it is considered," Osler said. "You don't get oral argument, or a series of briefs. You just prepare the best petition you can, and drop it into a black box."
In their letter, Angelos' supporters said they are aware the executive clemency power has been besmirched in recent years; that, they said, should not bar its use in an appropriate situation.
"Until the other branches of government provide a means to prevent draconian sentences, epitomized by the one imposed on Mr. Angelos," the letter states, "clemency will remain the only remedy for such miscarriages of justices."