Mandatory Minimums

Judge Who Sentenced Small-Time Pot Dealer to 55 Years Again Urges Clemency

If Obama means what he says about unjust punishment, he will free Weldon Angelos.

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From the moment he was forced to impose a 55-year sentence on a 24-year-old pot dealer in 2004, Paul Cassell has been urging presidential clemency to correct that egregious injustice, which he calls "one of the most troubling [cases] that I ever faced in my five years on the federal bench." This week the former federal judge, now a University of Utah law professor, tried again, asking President Obama to free Weldon Angelos, a father of three who is now 36 and has served more than 12 years for three half-pound marijuana sales. 

If it had been up to him, Cassell explains in his letter to Obama, Angelos would already be free. But Cassell was constrained by a federal law, 18 USC 924(c), that prescribes mandatory minimum penalties for anyone who "uses or carries a firearm" during a "drug trafficking crime." The first such offense is punishable by five years in prison, subsequent offenses are punishable by 25 years each, and the sentences must be served consecutively. Angelos was convicted of three counts, based on a gun he allegedly brought with him to two of the pot deals and additional firearms that police found in his home. 

Although he never fired or even brandished a gun, Angelos was punished more severely than people who commit much worse crimes. As Cassell noted at the time, a 55-year prison term is "far in excess of the sentence imposed for such serious crimes as aircraft hijacking, second degree murder, espionage, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and rape." That very day, Cassell said, he had imposed a sentence less than half as long on a man who beat a 68-year-old woman to death with a log during a drunken dispute. "When the sentence for actual violence inflicted on a victim is dwarfed by a sentence for carrying guns to several drug deals," Cassell writes in his letter to Obama, "the implicit message to victims is that their pain and suffering counts for less than some abstract 'war on drugs.'"

If the goal of 18 USC 924(c) is to punish and deter armed recidivists, Cassell notes, the draconian penalty imposed on Angelos makes no sense. But in the 1993 case Deal v. United States, the Supreme Court approved the stacking of gun charges in a single case involving more than one incident. "The Supreme Court's interpretation has produced a fearsome mandatory minimum statute that is not a true recidivist law," Cassell writes. "This stacking aspect cannot be justified on grounds that it is sending a message to recidivists who did not learn a lesson, given that a defendant (like Angelos) will not have been convicted and imprisoned in the time between § 924(c) violations." He notes that the Justice Department's current policy is not to pursue multiple gun charges in such cases. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which Congress is currently considering, would clarify that the enhanced 25-year mandatory minimum applies only to defendants with prior convictions under 18 USC 924(c).

The Justice Department says it is giving priority to commutation petitions from "non-violent, low-level offenders" who have served at least 10 years of a sentence that probably would have been shorter under current law, "do not have a significant criminal history," have "demonstrated good conduct in prison," and have no "significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels." Cassell notes that Angelos, a first-time offender when he was sent away for more than half a century, seems to meet all of those criteria. 

"In 2004, when I sentenced Mr. Angelos, I thought his sentence was 'cruel, unjust, and irrational,'" Cassell concludes. "I am even more firmly convinced of that conclusion today, when the Angelos case has been widely discussed as a clear example of an unduly harsh sentence. Because his appeals have been exhausted, the only solution for Angelos is a Presidential commutation. I urge you to swiftly commute his sentence."

Obama, who granted only one commutation during his first term, has picked up the pace recently, freeing a total of 184 prisoners so far. With less than a year to go in office, he still has time to free hundreds or even thousands more. If Obama means what he says about unjust punishment, one of them will be Weldon Angelos.

NEXT: Friday Funnies: Uncle Sam at the Bar

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  1. he had imposed a sentence less than half as long on a man who beat a 68-year-old woman to death with a log during a drunken dispute.

    Oh, very well. Triple that guy’s sentence.

  2. Won’t someone please think of the soccer moms?

    1. They can get 55-year sentences too.

      1. heh

  3. “In 2004, when I sentenced Mr. Angelos, I thought his sentence was ‘cruel, unjust, and irrational,'” Cassell concludes.

    don’t blame yourself judge. you were just following orders.

    1. What does happen when a judge ignores sentencing guidelines?

      1. Another judge orders the ranchers back to jail.

      2. Let me answer that question by posing another:
        What does happen when a Justice ignores the Constitution?

      3. What does happen when a judge ignores sentencing guidelines?

        The sentence is appealed, the perp goes back for a longer sentence, and Cliven Bundy seizes a visitor center at a national park. Do try to keep up.

        1. Damn these stubby little fingers!

        2. uh, YOU need to keep up. Cliven Bundy seized nothing. THEY seized HIM, with no just cause. No, it was not Cliven walked into the open visitor’s centre and sat down for a month or so. And it was not a “national park”, it was an unconstitutionally and otherwise illegally occupied BLM facitly stolen from the People of Oregon, contrary to the State Charter making ALL such public lands inside Oregon part of Oregon. BLM should not even BE there.

    2. Paul “Miranda Is The Worstest Decision Ever” Cassell knows cruel, unjust, and irrational when he sees it. It’s cruel, unjust, and irrational to force prosecutors to actually have to prove their case rather than just giving cops rubber hoses and nickel-filled socks and let the cops have at it, for example. Why we gotta give the criminals more rights than the cops who are arresting them? Sometimes ya gotta beat a confesssion out of them because these criminal scumbags will make up shit like “I didn’t do it” or “my name’s Robert Williams, not William Roberts” or “I have video evidence and 12 witnesses of me being in a store 20 miles away at the time”.

    3. I have two suggestions, Your Honor:

      1. If the sentence was “cruel, unjust and irrational,” should should have authored an opinion so holding — and forced an appellate court to reverse you. Who knows? The court of appeals may have agreed with you.

      2. You could always have resigned your post if imposing the sentence was that inconsistent with your moral code.

      1. Righteoh, this judge lacked the spine to stand on principle… well-tested and upheld Constitutional principles. Now he wants someone else to undo what he did.

    4. “you were just following orders”

      Vote Woodchipper 2016

  4. Presumably this guy wasn’t caught every single time he dealt drugs. If the dude is carrying guns to drug deals, he’s probably expecting to brandish it at some point. He was dealing wholesale, right?

    Yes, drugs should be legal, but the point I am trying to make is that people only get caught a small fraction of the time, so we shouldn’t pretend that you’re not a multiple offender until you are convicted multiple times.

    On the other hand, the killer probably was a one timer…

    1. Presumably lots of people were’t caught committing crimes, we should throw those people in jail, too. I can’t help but presume you haven’t been caught committing any crimes there, has ya Bubba? You going down to turn yourself in right now?

    2. When you have that much weed and the money that goes with it, you might need to defend yourself. He may well have had no intention with the gun besides defending himself if he got robbed. Which is pretty legitimate in my book and no reason to assume he was any kind of violent criminal.

      As for the “multiple offender” thing, of course he sold weed on many other occasions (unless it was total entrapment). But that’s irrelevant to the legal situation.

      I would assume that pretty much anyone who gets busted for dealing or possessing drugs is a multiple offender (outside of cases of entrapment or really bad luck), as should anyone with a brain who is paying attention.

    3. The idea that carrying a gun, not using it, not brandishing it, but merely having it on your person, while committing a crime adds decades to your sentence should outrage anyone who values the second amendment. It seems pretty clear to me that such laws are criminalizing gun possession. Deal Drugs 10 years. Be legally carrying a gun at the time (no idea if this particular person was legally carrying it, but the result would have been the same) add 15 years. What is the added time but a penalty for carrying a gun?

    4. Probably sarc.

    5. Presumably this guy wasn’t caught every single time he dealt drugs.

      Irrelevant. You convict people for the crimes you have specific evidence of, not because “like, he probably did it a bunch more times”.

      If the dude is carrying guns to drug deals, he’s probably expecting to brandish it at some point.

      If he brandished it, then they would charge him with that. If he didn’t brandish it, you’re trying to convict him based on your own imagination about what he was going to do.

    6. HOW do you know he didn’t carry that gun everywhere else he went, every day, just like some twenty million of us here in the US do? What, he was on his way to the Safeway, then to the hardware store, dropped by the bank to draw some cash to make change, then fueled his car… then went to make the appointment for the transaction involving some herbs the gummint thinks it can outlaw… what, was he supposed to go back by home, drop off his Persuader, then drive the ten miles back across town to meet his buyer? I know I can’t carry in the Post Office (we have a Stupid Uncle that is convinced the moment I cross the threshhold into the lobby of the PO I turn into a raving murderer, so must not take that tool inside….. even well concealed) but I am unwilling to go through the rest of my day unarmed… so I slip it free of its holster and cover it inside the car, then walk in, do my business, then put it back in its right place when I return to the car. Was HE supposed to know he’d get busted and leave his piece home that day? Hah, he’d not have shown up. And half pounds are not that big a quantity.

      and no, I do NOT use the stuff. But firmly believe it should not be illegal, particularly at Fed level. NO authority for that.

  5. I’ve seen a lot of news reports about this case, and I notice this one makes the same major omission that the others did.

    No one forced the federal prosecutor to stack those enhancements. All of these mandatory minimum issues are because of the type and number of charges the prosecutor chose to pursue. They could have dismissed enhancements, reduced the charges, changed the notice provisions, etc.

    Why is the prosecutor escaping blame for their part in this miscarriage of justice?

    1. My guess: the charges were stacked in order to scare the defendant into giving up others. He refused to do that, and was punished for it It

    2. The jury would seem to bear more blame than the prosecutor. Unless of course they were not told that the end result would be a 55-year sentence. In which case, it still seems like the judge is most at fault, besides the statute that established the extra penalties and mandatory minimums.

      1. Juries are not told what the potential or likely sentences could be for the charge(s). They are sometimes asked to recommend a sentence but they aren’t given any idea of the statutory maximum or mandatory minimums.

        In my state, telling the jury what the potential penalty is will result in a mistrial.

        1. You can’t have justice if juries know the facts.

          Vote Woodchipper 2016

  6. “In 2004, when I sentenced Mr. Angelos, I thought his sentence was ‘cruel, unjust, and irrational,'” Cassell

    Then it was your duty to overturn the sentencing guidelines as a violation of the 8th amendment. Let SCOTUS decide the issue. Fuck this coward.

    What would have happened to him? I doubt anything. He wouldn’t have lost his bar license. He might have been removed from the bench but he could still have made a living. Fuck him.

    1. The worst that would happen to him is that his decision would have been reversed.

  7. ACYIVIST JUDGE!

  8. It’s interesting how exercising your constitutional rights while committing a crime can cause a massive increase in the criminal penalties.

    It’s almost as if they’re just looking for a way to put you in jail for exercising your constitutional rights.

    1. they are. WHY else to decide that Vets and folks on Social Security, and the bogus “no fly” lists have forfeited their right to defend themselves? Or how about nasty divorce lawyers taking out restraining orders as standard protocol evem when the guy not violent? Or guys behind on child support payments cause they’re out of work and broke? Or anyone who owes back income taxes? Or convicted the bogus “felony” of drining 20+ MPH above the posted speed limit?

      Seems Gummint are very intent upon making up bogus reasons to take away anyone’s right to arms. You know, that RTIGHT that SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED?

  9. The greatest threat to our freedom is the centralized socialist state.

    1. No. The greatest threat to our freedom is the ENTIRE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. Period.

      The federal government should be gutted to no more authority than protecting the shores and borders of the sovereign nation and reliably delivering the mail.

  10. And no criminal banker, who stole hundreds of millions, has been prosecuted by Obama’s DOJ. But of course, the pot seller didn’t give Obama millions, the way the bankers did.

  11. WHY are FedGov even prosecuting crimes such as this? They have NO AUTHORITY under the Constitution to meddle in such law and punishment.

    It is particularly aggravating that the simple possession of a firearm as he went about his daily affairs has NOTHING to do with his selling of a substance FedGov have no authority to declare illegal. The firearm was NOT an accessory or signficant part of his “crime”. It was merely present by coincidence. This sort of draconian law is part of what needs to CHANGE as far as FedGov are concerned. Having that handgun on his hip has NO impact on the unrelated activity.

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