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Kepa Maumau stared at the courtroom ceiling, fighting to keep his composure as his father sobbed while giving the 24-year-old man a bear hug on Thursday.
It would be the last chance for father and son to embrace after U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell ordered Maumau, a once promising running back with plans to play football at Weber State University, to spend 57 years in prison for committing three armed robberies on behalf of the Tongan Crip Gang.
A reluctant Campbell handed down the sentence, which is dictated by federal mandatory minimum guidelines associated with gun crimes.
Maumau's sentencing in federal court was fourth completed for six members of TCG convicted by a jury in October for a variety of crimes dating back to 2002. The jury convicted Maumau of racketeering conspiracy, robbery, assault with a dangerous weapon and multiple counts of using or carrying a firearm during a violent crime.
Although Maumau's federal charges marked the first time he'd ever been charged with a felony as an adult, he is subject to a mandatory 57 years for repeatedly using a gun during the robberies. Maumau's defense attorney, Rebecca Skordas, said she plans to appeal the sentence and used the hearing as a chance to speak out against mandatory minimum sentences.
"This is absurd. It's just not right," Skordas said. "We as a society have failed when we send a young man to prison for 57 years."
Campbell said the law gives her no alternatives in Maumau's case.
"I can't change it," she said matter-of-factly.
Skordas said following the hearing that the U.S. Sentencing Commission is studying the possibility of changing some federal guidelines, and that she is hopeful cases like Maumau's in the future may see a different outcome at the sentencing stage.
Kepa Maumau's case isn't the first where a mandatory minimums have come under fire.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Utah music producer Weldon Angelos, who wanted the high court to throw out the 55-year prison sentence he received for drug and weapons crimes despite having no prior criminal record. The decision ended appeal options for Angelos, 32 the founder of hip-hop label Extravagant Records who had unsuccessfully argued that his trial attorney mishandled plea negotiations during his court proceedings and that the sentence handed down was unfair.
Angelos sold marijuana to a police informant three times in May and June 2002, each time charging $350 for 8 ounces. He was indicted in federal court on one gun possession count, three counts of marijuana distribution and two lesser charges.
Prosecutors claimed Angelos was a gang member and drug dealer who had a gun strapped to his ankle during one of the drug sales to informants.
Angelos denied those allegations and declined a plea bargain offered by prosecutors. The U.S. Attorneys Office called the offer Angelos rejected a "huge break," then obtained a new indictment with 20 charges that mandated a minimum 105-year sentence.
A jury convicted Angelos in 2003 of 16 counts of drug trafficking, weapons possession and money laundering. One charge was dismissed, and the jury acquitted Angelos of three charges.
U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell sentenced Angelos to a minimum mandatory 55-year sentence: five years on the first weapons conviction and 25 years each for the next two counts, as required by law. Cassell, frustrated that his hands were tied by the mandatory guidelines, asked former President George Bush to commute the sentence, calling it "unjust, cruel and irrational."
Skordas said cases like Maumau's and Angelos' are examples of why federal guidelines need closer examination.
Kepa Maumau's sentencing came a day after family watched his older brother, Daniel, be sent away for crimes also connected to TCG on Wednesday. Daniel Maumau, 25, will serve 10 years in prison for shooting into a house during a drive-by.
Kepa Maumau's sentence is the harshest handed down in the TCG cases so far.
Maumau turned to his family in court on Thursday and thanked them for their support after receiving his sentence. He asked Campbell for a prison placement in northern California, where one of his sister's resides.
Court documents filed in connection with Kepa Maumau's trial detail his spiral into gang life in junior high school.
An "exit plan" Kepa Maumau penned while incarcerated at the Wasatch Youth Center in 2005 revealed the man found the Tongan Crip Gang because he craved attention. 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 and his criminal path began.
"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. I knew that only the negative attitudes would receive attention."
Maumau said his mom cared for him, but she was busy working full-time in addition to caring for other siblings. His father took a job out-of-state during Maumau's teenage years as a way to earn more money for the family, Maumau wrote.
Kepa Maumau's juvenile record included vehicle theft, assault, robbery, retail theft, unlawful possession of a firearm, a drive-by shooting, assaulting an officer as well as substance abuse. After serving time as a juvenile he returned to a life of crime. He wrote in his exit plan that he was injured when a rival gang member shot into a vehicle he was riding in. On another occasion, a rival gang shot up his house, nearly killing his mother.
Kepa Maumau's exit plan in 2005 included a list of goals to achieve within 10 years. He listed getting a bachelor's degree, playing in the NFL, becoming an accountant, moving out of Utah and starting his own family as his top priorities.
He was also asked to list things that would interfere with achieving his goals. Maumau's reply: "Gang banging."
TCG case recap
A federal jury in October convicted six members of the Tongan Crip Gang (TCG) for crimes dating back to 2002, including robberies, assaults and supporting a criminal enterprise. The verdict came after a five-week trial and two days of deliberation. The defendants face potentially lengthy prison terms. Several defendants are in the middle of serving other prison terms they will need to finish before starting their new federal sentences.
Eric "Smooth" Kamahele, 24, of Cottonwood Heights
Convictions » Racketeering conspiracy, assault with a dangerous weapon in aid of racketeering, using or carrying a firearm during a crime of violence and robbery. He was ordered to serve a mandatory minimum 32 years in prison at his Wednesday sentencing.
Mataika "Fish" Tuai, 22, of Salt Lake City
Convictions » Racketeering conspiracy, robbery and discharging a firearm during a crime of violence. He faces at least 10 years in prison when he is sentenced Jan. 11.
David "D-Down" Kamoto, 24, of Salt Lake City
Conviction » Robbery. Jurors acquitted Kamoto on charges of maiming in aid of racketeering; assault with a dangerous weapon in aid of racketeering; conspiracy to commit assault resulting in serious bodily injury in aid of racketeering; and firearms charges. He was ordered to serve 36 months of probation because he served state prison time for the same crime.
Daniel "D-Loc" Maumau, 25, of Salt Lake City
Convictions » Assault with a dangerous weapon and using or carrying a firearm during a crime of violence. Jurors acquitted Maumau on charges of conspiracy to commit assault resulting in serious bodily injury and a second firearms count. He was ordered to serve 10 years in prison at his Wednesday sentencing.
Kepa "Kap-Loc" Maumau, 24, of Salt Lake City
Convictions » Racketeering conspiracy, robbery, assault with a dangerous weapon in aid of racketeering and multiple counts of using or carrying a firearm during a violent crime. He was ordered to serve 57 years in prison at his Thursday sentencing.
Sitamipa "Tok-Loc" Toki, 28, of Salt Lake City
Convictions » Assault with a dangerous weapon and using or carrying a firearm in connection with a crime of violence. Jurors acquitted Toki of conspiracy to commit assault resulting in serious bodily injury and a second firearms count. He faces at least 10 years in prison when sentenced Jan. 11.
David "D-Nutt" Walsh » 32, of Inglewood, Calif.
Acquitted of » Conspiracy to commit assault resulting in serious bodily injury in aid of racketeering. Walsh will be returned to California, where he is serving a prison sentence for crimes there. He may be possibly charged with murder in Utah's 3rd District Court, after previously unrevealed testimony during the federal trial indicated he was the alleged triggerman in the 2007 murder of Solomone Tu'ifua.
Charles "Slim-Loc" Moa » 32, of West Jordan
Acquitted of » Racketeering and weapons charges. The judge ruled there was not enough evidence for Moa's case to be considered by the jury, and granted a defense attorney's motion for acquittal prior to jury deliberations. Moa was sent back to the Utah State Prison in Draper, where he is serving a state prison sentence.