Kepa Maumau will be a free man four decades earlier than anyone expected.

Convicted of three armed robberies as part of a sweeping prosecution of the Tongan Crip Gang, Maumau faced a mandatory sentence of 55 years.

He’s been locked up for 12, and he would have remained imprisoned until 2057 if Congress didn’t pass the First Step Act. That 2018 overhaul of the federal sentencing system gave U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell the flexibility she lacked in 2011 when she reluctantly sentenced Maumau. Given a second chance on Monday, Campbell was more lenient.

She ordered him to time served.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Maumau’s hearing was held via telephone, and he wasn’t on the line because he is currently being quarantined at the Salt Lake County jail.

Campbell ordered that as soon as Maumau is released from quarantine, he is free to go home.

Rachel Leota, Maumau’s sister, said that as soon as Campbell announced her decision, her family in Salt Lake City erupted in cheers. They had gathered together to listen to the phone hearing, and the house was full of siblings, their mom, and Maumau’s nieces and nephews who didn’t know what their uncle looked like — but were excited to meet him.

“The whole house rumbled,” Leota said. “It’s a feeling we can’t describe. It’s just been a great vibe, that everything is finally over.”

Convicted

The criminal justice system has changed significantly in the past decade. Throw-the-book-at-them strategies have been brushed aside by a bipartisan drive to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated and to limit lengthy prison terms, particularly for drug crimes.

But in 2010, Utah’s federal prosecutors used the federal RICO Act, which stands for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, in an attempt to decimate a gang.

Maumau was one of 17 young men who were charged in the RICO case against the Tongan Crip Gang.

As then-Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller said a decade ago: “We have cut off the head of the snake.”

Many of the men charged took plea deals, getting sentences of a decade or so in exchange for cooperating with the government. Maumau, too, had an offer to plead guilty and spend 10 years in federal prison.

He decided to go to trial, taking a risk most people charged in federal court don’t — 97% of federal criminal cases end in plea deals, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers reported in 2018. Many defendants choose a plea deal to avoid a substantially more severe penalty if convicted at trial. And that’s what happened to Maumau.

He was convicted by a jury of racketeering conspiracy, robbery, assault with a dangerous weapon and multiple counts of using or carrying a firearm during a violent crime.

Even after winning an appeal that shaved two years off his original sentence, Maumau had expected to spend 55 years behind bars, a requirement of tough mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Maumau’s spiral into gang life, which lead to this hefty sentence, began in junior high school.

He explained how it happened in an “exit plan” he wrote while incarcerated at a juvenile detention center in 2005. A good student, Maumau didn’t feel recognized by peers in the same way troublemakers received attention, he wrote. As a seventh-grader, he helped a friend steal a car.

“By the time I reached ninth grade, I had built a criminal reputation for myself. I used to be proud of it because I felt that people noticed me more than before. I wanted to keep my reputation going so I joined a gang,” Maumau wrote. “I basically wanted attention.”

Maumau had been in trouble as a kid, but his federal case was the first time he had been convicted of any crimes as an adult.

Maumau was one of 12 accused Tongan Crip Gang members who either pleaded guilty or was convicted at trial — and was given one of the harshest sentences.

The last person to go to trial for his alleged ties to the gang, Siale Angilau, was shot and killed by a federal marshal after he grabbed a pen and a mechanical pencil and ran toward a witness who had started testifying about the gang.

A new sentence

Years later, in 2018, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, a sweeping criminal justice reform co-written by Utah Sen. Mike Lee. It aimed to reduce the burgeoning federal prison population, lower mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, expand job training and boost early-release opportunities.

Lee’s inspiration for the law was another Utahn who faced a similarly long sentence. Weldon Angelos was a Utah music producer who was sentenced to a mandatory 55 years in federal prison for selling marijuana to a police informant — once with a gun.

The first-time offender served 13 years behind bars before he was freed in 2016. Like in Maumau’s case, the federal judge who was forced to sentence Angelos to decades in prison was reluctant to do so.

That judge, Paul Cassell, who is now a University of Utah law professor, called the forced sentence “unjust, cruel and even irrational.”

But the First Step Act now allows defense attorneys to argue that lengthy sentences don’t match the crimes, an avenue that defendants like Angelos didn’t have before. Maumau’s attorneys asked for his 55-year sentence to be reduced further, a motion that Campbell granted in February.

Federal prosecutors opposed the reduction, and argued that Maumau should spend at least 25 years in prison for what he had done. They noted that he had gotten in trouble while in prison, for fighting and for drug use. Maybe he wasn’t truly a changed man.

But Maumau’s attorney, John Gleeson, argued his client was struggling with how to cope after being given a lengthy prison sentence. He’s focused now on his education, Gleeson said, and how he can contribute to the community.

His attorney noted at the Monday hearing that Maumau already has paid a big price for his crimes. He spent all of his 20s incarcerated. He wasn’t there when his dad died earlier this year.

“We should all be rallying around him,” his attorney said. “He’s righted himself. He has a future in front of him. He’s been punished so severely already.”

Campbell, the judge, said Monday that she didn’t believe Maumau would be dangerous again, and noted that the way he was charged essentially punished him multiple times for the same robberies.

Community support

The judge also noted that Maumau had a large community rooting for him, people who sent her letters of support and assurance that Maumau would have a job and educational opportunities waiting for him.

They were letters from people who grew up in the tight-knit Tongan community in Glendale, who lived just a few blocks away from Maumau as kids or went to junior high school with him. They’ve grown up and are working at the University of Utah and Salt Lake Community College to help Pacific Islander men like Maumau and other minorities get an education and reintegrate into the community.

The RICO prosecution was a shock to Utah’s Tongan community, wrote David Kinikini, who is the retention programs coordinator and advisor for Pacific Island programs at the U.

Their community is now better able to support men like Maumau, wrote West Valley City Councilman Jake Fitisemanu Jr.

“I know that our community is more prepared than ever,” Fitisemanu wrote, “to welcome back our incarcerated sons and daughters and provide them the support and opportunities they need to pay back their debt to society.”

Leota, Maumau’s sister, said that’s how her family is. She’s one of seven siblings, who gather to cry together, laugh together and support one another. They’ve tried to stay supportive of Maumau all these years, along with another of her brothers, Daniel Maumau, who was also sentenced to prison as part of the RICO case.

Leota said their family is getting a sort of two-for-one deal — Daniel is expected to be released to a halfway house in Utah in just a few weeks. After more than a decade, her mother will have both her sons home.

“It adds on to my mom’s joy,” she said. “To have all her kids together. Our mom, she’s been the strongest person for our family.”

Leota said this long, winding journey has shown her family that there can be justice in the legal system. They’ve seen attorneys like Gleeson fight for their brother, and judges like Campbell who thought of Maumau’s case throughout these years.

“It’s just been a wonderful feeling to know that we have judges and lawyers who work hard for people like Kepa,” she said. “And for families who stick together.”