Sentence 'unjust,' judge says
A federal judge on Tuesday reluctantly sentenced a Utah music producer to a mandatory 55 years in prison, then urged President Bush to commute the term to a more just punishment.
U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell said federal minimum mandatory sentencing laws left him no choice but to impose what he called an "unjust and cruel and even irrational" prison term on Weldon Angelos, 25.
Angelos will be 80 years old before he is freed. He did not speak at the sentencing.
The 55-year term was mandated by Angelos' three gun-possession convictions. For 13 other drug and money laundering counts, Cassell imposed one additional day behind bars.
Speaking to a courtroom packed with Angelos' family and friends, Cassell called on the president to intervene and said he recommended a sentence of no more than 18 years. He also urged Congress to modify the mandatory minimum law "so that its harsh provisions for 25-year multiple sentences apply only to true recidivist drug offenders."
Calling the case the most difficult he has faced in his 2 1/2 years on the bench, Cassell said in a 67-page ruling that he could find no basis to declare minimum mandatories unconstitutional.
"While the sentence appears to be cruel, unjust and irrational, in our system of separated powers Congress makes the final decision as to appropriate criminal penalties," the judge wrote.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah said the sentence is fair and will deter others.
"This sends the message that people who engage in armed drug dealing are going to face very serious consequences," assistant U.S. attorney Robert Lund said after the sentencing.
He added that there is "no chance at all" the president will reduce Angelos' sentence.
Defense attorney Jerome Mooney said he will appeal Cassell's ruling - a denial of Mooney's request to declare minimum mandatory sentences unconstitutional - to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
The debate over minimum mandatory sentences drew national attention to Angelos' case. A group of 29 former federal judges and prosecutors filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking Cassell to reject the mandatory term for Angelos.
They argued the punishment violates the Constitution by taking sentencing authority away from judges and essentially giving it to prosecutors, who wield tremendous power to decide which charges to bring.
At a news conference held on the steps of the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City by Families Against Minimum Mandatories (FAMM), Mooney contended congressional representatives are more interested in winning re-election than in justice.
"Congress should be ashamed of themselves for letting an injustice like this to occur," he said. "It's time for them to be brave and say, 'We've gone too far.' ''
FAMM spokeswoman Monica Pratt said Angelos' sons, ages 6 and 5, will suffer the harshest punishment - life without their father.
Defense witnesses at the trial testified that Angelos, founder of Extravagant Records, which produces rap and hip hop, earned the money he was accused of laundering legitimately. The music producer has indicated that the gun was only for his own protection.
But the federal jury convicted Angelos last December of 16 counts of drug trafficking, weapons possession and money laundering.
Federal law required him to be sentenced to at least 55 years in prison for three convictions of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.
Angelos had a clean record before his conviction except for a minor nonviolent juvenile offense, according to the friend-of-the-court brief. It notes he originally was charged with only one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking.
But after he refused a plea deal with a 16-year sentence, prosecutors asked a grand jury to return an indictment with additional charges.
Cassell in February asked attorneys in the case to submit briefs exploring the constitutionality of the stiff term mandated for Angelos. He pointed out then, and at Tuesday's sentencing, that aircraft hijackers, child rapists and murderers serve shorter mandatory terms for their crimes.
The judge also surveyed jurors in the case, who heard how Angelos sold marijuana from his Salt Lake City apartment - where he also kept a gun, sometimes strapped to his ankle - and the nine who responded favored a sentence of 15 to 18 years.
Lund said the long sentences for mixing guns and drug sales makes potential offenders think twice about carrying a weapon. In addition, the prosecutor said that if defendants commit the violent crimes listed by Cassell while carrying a firearm, they also would spend a long mandatory term behind bars.
Margaret Plane, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said the Angelos case shows how minimum mandatory sentences can be unjust.
"They are applied without regard to the offense type and without regard to the offender," she said.
* Weldon Angelos' attorney will appeal Judge Paul Cassell's ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
* Cassell ordered copies of his decision, including his recommendation that President Bush commute the sentence to a shorter term, forwarded to the Office of Pardon Attorney and to the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees.
* Families Against Minimum Mandatories will continue lobbying Congress to change laws requiring mandatory minimum sentences.