If Obama Cares About Unjust Drug Sentences, Why Is Weldon Angelos Still Behind Bars?

WeldonAngelos.orgWeldonAngelos.orgNine years ago, Weldon Angelos, a 24-year-old rap music entrepreneur from Salt Lake City, was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison for three small-time marijuana sales. In a letter released today, 113 concerned citizens, including 60 former prosecutors, 17 former judges, seven former state attorneys general, and four former governors, remind President Obama that he has the power to free Angelos, whose case is frequently cited to illustrate the injustices resulting from mandatory minimum sentences.

U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, who imposed what may well amount to a life sentence on Angelos, called it "unjust, cruel, and even irrational" but noted that his hands were tied by the mandatory minimums Congress had prescribed for people who engage in drug trafficking while possessing a gun: five years for the first offense and 25 years for each subsequent offense. Angelos, a first-time offender, had a handgun concealed under his clothing during two pot sales; the third count was tied to guns police found when they searched his home. He never brandished a gun, let alone fired one, and no one but Angelos and his family suffered as a result of the marijuana sales, which involved a total of a pound and a half. The letter urging Obama to commute Angelos' sentence, which was organized by the Constitution Project, highlights the perversity of the penalty he received:

Had Mr. Angelos been charged in [a Utah] court...he would have been paroled years ago. Indeed, Mr. Angelos's sentence is longer than the punishment imposed on far more serious federal offenses and offenders. His term of imprisonment exceeds the federal sentence for, among others, an aircraft hijacker, a second-degree murderer, a kidnapper, and a child rapist. Incredibly, Mr. Angelos's sentence is longer than those imposed for three aircraft hijackings, three second-degree murders, three kidnappings, or three rapes. In fact, the 55-year sentence for possessing a firearm three times in connection with minor marijuana offenses is more than twice the federal sentence for a kingpin of a major drug trafficking ring in which a death results, and more than four times the sentence for a marijuana dealer who shoots an innocent person during a drug transaction.

That's right: Angelos would have been treated less severely if he had shot the police informant posing as a customer instead of selling him pot twice more. The sentence was so egregious, the letter notes, that in 2006 "a group of 145 individuals—including former U.S. Attorneys General, retired U.S. Circuit Court Judges, retired U.S. District Court judges, a former Director of the FBI, former U.S. Attorneys, and other former high-ranking U.S. Justice Department officials—submitted a brief amici curiae in support of Mr. Angelos's case."

As the letter points out, Angelos' 55-year prison term is precisely the sort of grossly disproportionate penalty that Obama decried before he was elected president. In a 2007 speech at Howard University, for example, Obama noted that George W. Bush had at one point questioned long sentences for first-time drug offenders. "I agree with George W. Bush," Obama said. "The difference is he hasn't done anything about it. When I'm President, I will. We will review these sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of nonviolent offenders." Has he delivered on that promise?

In 2010, to Obama's credit, he signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced (but did not eliminate) the irrational sentencing disparity between the snorted and smoked forms of cocaine. But since that law passed Congress almost unanimously, supporting it did not take much courage. Last August, four and half years into Obama's presidency, his attorney general, Eric Holder, announced a new policy under which federal prosecutors are supposed to exclude drug weights from charges against certain low-level, nonviolent offenders to avoid triggering mandatory minimums. That policy, assuming that U.S. attorneys comply with it, has the potential to shorten the prison terms of about 500, or 2 percent, of the 25,000 federal drug offenders sentenced each year.

But Obama has conspicuously failed to use his commutation power to shorten sentences that he and Holder have both called excessively long—including those imposed on crack offenders before passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, which did not apply retroactively. He has issued only one commutation and 39 pardons in nearly five years, which so far makes him the least merciful president in U.S. history (once you exclude, as seems only fair, the first president's first term and the abbreviated terms of two presidents who died shortly after they were elected).

In light of Obama's amazingly stingy clemency record, this kowtowing passage from the Constitution Project's letter is laughable (although I understand why it was included):

We recognize that the executive clemency power has been besmirched in recent years by a few tawdry cases. But we also know that you, as a former constitutional law professor and keen student of history, appreciate the vital function that clemency plays in our tripartite system of checks and balances.

The letter includes 28 footnotes, but none of them provides evidence to back up that assertion, because there is precious little. Obama still has time to provide some more, and freeing Weldon Angelos would be a good place to start.

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  • Hyperion||

    In a letter released today, 113 concerned citizens, including 60 former prosecutors, 17 former judges, seven former state attorneys general, and four former governors, remind President Obama that he has the power to free Angelos

    The great one does not have time to contemplate the fate of mere peasants. Well, not unless they're some race mongering to do, which in this case, there's not. So as far as dear leader is concerned, this guy doesn't exist.

  • pan fried wylie||

    FYTW.

  • Almanian!||

    Cause he's brown?

  • ||

    If he hasn't pardoned the guy by now, he never will. He's in a second term, so if he previously thought clemency could hurt him in a campaign, that doesn't matter now. He's also embroiled in a huge mess right now, and you'd think a little clemency would be a tiny bit of good PR when the rest is a disaster. But he hasn't.

    Obama is a malignant narcissist megalomanic. He doesn't give two shits about some nobody rotting in prison. Does pardoning this guy get anything for Obama or his cronies? No? Fuck him, then.

  • JW||

    Obama is a malignant narcissist megalomanic.

    Don't forget his sociopathic behavior.

    Why doesn't he pardon him? Because, despite his mealy-mouthed words, despite all of his public pronouncements of intentions, he doesn't give even one fuck about anyone else.

  • thom||

    Wouldn't a megalomaniac narcissist be more likely to use the pardon? I mean, what use if such an extraordinary power if you never use it. You'd think he'd pardon this guy just so people would tell him how forgiving and compassionate he is.

  • Sevo||

    "If Obama Cares About Unjust Drug Sentences, Why Is Weldon Angelos Still Behind Bars?"
    Because he doesn't give a crap; that was just one more lie.

  • Dweebston||

    U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, who imposed what may well amount to a life sentence on Angelos, called it "unjust, cruel, and even irrational"

    I hope that comforts you when you're burning in hell, you evil twit.

  • Dweebston||

    For Sevo: I mean "burn in hell" figuratively. I don't buy the notion of an afterlife, or hell, or any source of cosmic justice.

    For Eduard: I mean "burn in hell" figuratively at the end of his natural life, and not as the result of vigilantism.

  • SIV||

    Atheists have sacred texts, revivals and churches,why not a Hell?. BURN IN ATHEIST HELL !!! has a nice ring to it.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, who imposed what may well amount to a life sentence on Angelos, called it "unjust, cruel, and even irrational" but noted that his hands were tied by the mandatory minimums"

    Cassell could have resigned and issued a blistering resignation letter saying that he would leave it to his successor to impose such an unjust sentence. Problem solved - he wouldn't be breaking the law, but he wouldn't be enforcing it either.

  • Sevo||

    But public employees never have to suffer the consequences for acts for which they are responsible.

  • Robert||

    What would that accomplish? Wouldn't you rather the sentence be imposed reluctantly rather than enthusiastically as his successor might've done? His successor might've added insult to injury. But even if you consider that inconsiderable, it'd be no improvement.

  • XM||

    "If the courts like your prison sentence, you can keep it."

    He can't go breaking more promises.

  • db||

    Everyone knows Obama's the world's greatest White Sox fan. There's no way he'd pardon a Yankess fan.

    /At the rate he's going, it's just possible Obama is this focused on destroying his opponents by any means.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    This guy can't help Obama. Why should Obama help this guy?

  • Andrew S.||

    So many nutpunches this evening. So very many.

    Obama is the worst kind of lying, narcisstic fuck. His ignorance of his pardon power and leaving people like Mr. Angelos to rot in jail, to me, should be criminal. I don't believe in an afterlife, but I almost hope there is one so Obama has to answer for shit like this (because there's no way in hell anyone will make him answer for it in this life).

  • JW||

    His ignorance of his pardon power and leaving people like Mr. Angelos to rot in jail, to me, should be criminal.

    Let me just say now that I'm completely opposed to pardoning Peter Angelos, whenever they manage to get around to arresting him.

  • Andrew S.||

    To answer your question, the reason that he does not pardon more Federal prison inmates is that he would be widely and violently attacked by political conservatives for being “weak on drugs”. Mr. Obama is choosing his battles and does not see any political gains to won but many political loses.

    That is not a pardon of what a liberal defending Obama's pardon policy would say. That is actually what a liberal defending Obama's pardon policy said (in the comments to Sullum's article on the subject at Forbes a few months ago).

  • ||

    "If Obama Cares About Unjust Drug Sentences..."

    False premise.

  • Bobarian||

    "Has he delivered on that promise?"

    Wouldn't it be easier (and a lot less work) to point out the promises that he has delivered on?

    Like balancing the budg...

    ah, I mean transpara...

    wait, what about, uh Guantana...

    Well fuck! there has gotta be something!?!

  • Bobarian||

    Wait, I've got it!

    Taking credit for GWB getting us out of Iraq.

  • mr lizard||

    The Great One further proves how he earned his spot on the porch.

  • Winston||

    Why is Sullum still shocked that Obama hasn't pardoned anyone? Has he vowed to pardon these people? And if he hasn't done it before he won't do it now. Progs don't give a shit about civil liberties and oppose any attempt to reduce government or harm unions so why would Sullum think Obama is different?

  • Calidissident||

    What makes you think he's shocked? The title is to me pretty obviously sarcastic, and the article's intent is to call out his hypocrisy and atrocious record on this issue. Sullum and Reason regulars are well aware of Obama's poor record on this issue. I think this article is more targeted towards wavering Obama supporters or ex-supporters who disapprove (or would disapprove, for those not very knowledgeable of his record on the issue) of how he has handled drug policy, and for whom this article may serve as a gateway (or more likely one of many) to libertarianism. Nothing in this article makes me think Sullum is surprised by Obama's actions.

  • JidaKida||

    lol, Obama could care less.

    www.Privacy-Web.tk

  • H. ReardEn||

    That's right: Angelos would have been treated less severely if he had shot the police informant posing as a customer instead of selling him pot twice more.

    Am I to understand that the three charges were brought at one time, not as seperate court cases? If that is the case, then the mandatory minimum sentences for repeated offences is not being used as a deterrent, but rather as a way to maximize incarceration.

  • frankania||

    Tune out the govt. no matter where you are. It is just stress producing. Live in the black-market, peaceful, society with your friends, ignoring everything that you cannot change.

    But, keep a low-profile so big-brother doesn't get you.

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