Robert Gehrke: Trump wiped Weldon Angelos’ record clean, but a bigger problem needs to be addressed

Minimum mandatories have locked up people for years longer than is just.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Every president in my memory has done it, the on-the-way-out-the-door pardons and commutations of prisoners and convicts.

Frequently, they become political and naturally the list of pardons so far issued by President Donald Trump is more extreme than that of his predecessors. It includes a rogues gallery of his loyalists and hangers-on.

He gave dubious pardons to his former campaign manager Paul Manafort and hatchetman Roger Stone, both convicted as part of the Mueller investigation; his son-in-law’s father, wealthy developer Charles Kushner (more on him later); and Utah Rep. Phil Lyman, whose pardon doesn’t matter much since he had served his sentence and paid restitution for damaging property during an illegal ATV protest.

But it also includes one that I had hoped would come years ago.

You’re probably familiar by now, at least somewhat, with the story of Weldon Angelos. He was a record producer who had worked with Snoop Dogg, but on three occasions sold marijuana to a police informant — once with a gun strapped to his ankle and two other times with one in the vicinity.

Angelos rejected a plea deal that would have meant a 15 year prison sentence and the U.S. attorney’s office threw all it had at him, indicting him on 20 counts with a possible prison sentence of 105 years.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Weldon Angelos talks about his release from prison at his sitters house in Sandy, Friday, June 3, 2016. Angelos was released from prison on Tuesday.

“Sadly, sometimes the game of chicken … ends in a collision because neither side will back down,” Paul Cassell, who was the judge in Angelos’ case and now teaches law at the University of Utah, told me Wednesday.

Angelos was convicted in 2004 of 16 counts, but the weapons charges alone carried a minimum mandatory sentence of 55 years, putting Cassell in a bind — does he abide by the sentence required by the statute, even though he knew it was unjust?

“He was convicted and the conviction was affirmed and he had a very fine defense team all the way through, so I don’t think there was ever any doubt about the conviction. The question was about the 55-year sentence for a fairly low level [offense],” Cassell said. “That seemed out of whack.”

Cassell imposed the sentence “but I did so kicking and screaming the whole way through,” authoring a blistering 50-page opinion condemning the unjustness of mandatory minimum sentences.

In the years that followed, Angelos became the poster child for the wrongs of mandatory minimums and the injustice they inflict on low-level defendants and disproportionately people of color.

There was a lobbying effort to convince President Barack Obama to pardon Angelos or at least commute his sentence, but the issue of the sentence, at least, became moot when Angelos was released in June 2016, after being given a reduction in his sentence.

Since his release, Angelos has become an advocate for criminal justice reform. He has, however, also continued to be marked as a felon.

That ended just before Christmas when Trump issued a full pardon, wiping away the conviction.

“I’m almost speechless,” Angelos told my colleagues when the pardon was announced. “Everything is erased now. I don’t get back the time and money, but I’m a whole person again. I’m not a felon. I don’t have to check that box on a job application anymore.”

Aside from a clean record, there is a small irony that now Angelos can again own a gun, if he chooses, a right which felons are not allowed.

Proponents of his pardon included Sen. Mike Lee and Sen. Rand Paul (and just so Lee can’t say I never give him credit: Good work, senator.)

But perhaps the most interesting supporter of the pardon is Brett Tolman, the former U.S. attorney for Utah whose predecessor won the conviction. Tolman defended the conviction, even taking a little poke at Cassell when I wrote about Angelos’ case in 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the sentence.

“I know that Judge Cassell is very animated and excitable on this issue,” Tolman said at the time. “He’s been more engaged on it than some advocates.”

Tolman didn’t return my calls this week to discuss his change of heart. In recent years, Tolman has been a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform, working with Lee and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, to get a criminal justice reform bill through Congress — in my opinion it is the best thing to come out of the Trump presidency.

A White House statement also identified Tolman as a proponent of the pardon Trump issued to Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner. The senior Kushner pleaded guilty to tax evasion, illegal campaign contributions and witness tampering, after he tried to entrap his brother-in-law who was cooperating with authorities with a prostitute (It didn’t work).

And a Washington Post story earlier this year identified Tolman as part of an informal White House group making clemency recommendations to the administration.

As reasonable as the pardon in Angelos’ case may be, his case remains indicative of a bigger problem.

“Angelos is certainly not the only one who has been subjected to these mandatory minimums,” Cassell said. “I would like to see, not just Angelos’ situation looked into, but a more systemic review [of other cases].”

Maybe Trump, on his way out of office, can address some of those, but more than likely it will fall to the next administration. Regardless, Cassell is right, a larger review is warranted if we want to right some of the injustices in our system.