Utah federal judge takes closer look at stiff minimum mandatory terms

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Jurors who heard how Weldon Angelos sold marijuana from his Salt Lake City apartment - where he also kept a gun, sometimes strapped to his ankle - think he should serve 15 to 18 years in prison.

But prosecutors are insistent the just punishment is a virtual life sentence, a minimum mandatory term of about 63 years for Angelos' convictions for drug trafficking and weapons possession.

The man in the middle, U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, on Tuesday delayed a decision on Angelos' fate so he could ponder the justice of imposing such a stiff sentence. He set a hearing for Nov. 16, where he could mete out the mandatory term set by Congress or strike down mandatory minimums as unconstitutional, at least in his courtroom.

The defendant's wife, Zandrah Angelos, said she was relieved that Cassell was taking more time.

"It is my husband's life that's on the line," she said outside the federal courthouse, where Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national group, had organized a news conference.

Cassell, a law-and-order type and a victims' rights advocate when he was a law professor at the University of Utah, agreed that Angelos' crimes are serious, but had voiced concerns soon after the defendant's conviction about the tough required sentence.

At a hearing Tuesday before a packed courtroom, the judge questioned the prosecutor and defense attorney about the fairness of keeping Angelos, 25, behind bars into old age when crimes that could be considered much more serious are punished with lighter terms. He said he has surveyed the jurors who convicted Angelos and the nine who responded favored a sentence of 15 to 18 years.

In keeping with his teaching background, Cassell distributed a list comparing mandatory sentences for different crimes.

"I don't think there's any reason to believe that Utahns are particularly soft on crime," he said, adding that the mandatory minimum for Angelos is more than the sentence for a murderer.

Defense attorney Jerome Mooney also made that point, saying even a defendant convicted of capital murder could get a sentence with the possibility of parole. That could free the state inmate in 12 years, he said.

"He's likely to be out walking the streets long before anyone has an opportunity to help Mr. Angelos," Mooney said.

In addition, Angelos probably would serve 5 to 7 years if he were convicted in state court of the same federal offenses, he said.

But assistant U.S. attorney Robert Lund said Congress had approved minimum mandatory sentences because of the seriousness of mixing drug sales and guns. He said Cassell was comparing apples to oranges by looking at sentences for a defendant convicted of one count of a crime when Angelos had been convicted of multiple counts.

"He committed three separate crimes with firearms," Lund said.

Each time, the risk of injury or death went up astronomically, he said.

Angelos, founder of a Utah record label, was convicted in December of 16 counts of drug trafficking, weapons possession and money laundering. The gun convictions carry a mandatory five years for the first count and 25 years for each subsequent count, to be served consecutively - meaning, by law, he must spend at least 55 years in prison.

With a required minimum for the other counts stacked on top, Angelos faces a 63-year stretch behind bars.

Cassell asked the prosecutor and defense attorney in February to submit briefs exploring the constitutionality of such a stiff term. He pointed out that an aircraft hijacker with a previously clean record can serve no more than 24 1/2 years in prison, while a terrorist who detonates a bomb in a public place can receive at most a 19 1/2 -year sentence.

A group of 29 former federal judges and prosecutors joined in the debate with a friend-of-the-court brief asking Cassell to reject the mandatory term for Angelos. They insist that the punishment violates the Constitution by taking sentencing authority away from judges and essentially giving it to prosecutors, who wield tremendous power to decide which charges to bring.

Angelos had a clean record before his conviction except for a minor nonviolent juvenile offense, according to the friend-of-the-court brief. It notes the defendant originally was charged with only one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, but after he refused a plea deal with a 15-year sentence, prosecutors asked a grand jury to return an indictment with additional charges.

The defendant, founder of Extravagant Records, which produces rap and hip hop, has indicated that the gun was for his own protection. Witnesses at the trial testified that the music producer earned the money legitimately that he was accused of laundering.

The U.S. Attorney's Office, though, says Angelos' juvenile conviction was a firearms charge. As an adult, he affiliated with a violent street gang and had a security system and body armor at his home, tools of a drug dealer, prosecutors say.

"He made a ton of money doing it," Lund said at Tuesday's hearing.

At the news conference after the hearing, Mooney said he was encouraged by the questions Cassell had raised. He said the judge, who in June had declared federal sentencing guidelines unconstitutional, could do the same with minimum mandatories.

Speakers at the event rallied in support of rewriting federal laws requiring minimum mandatories. Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson said stiff terms can be an injustice to defendants and their families, as well as taxpayers who foot the bill for keeping prisoners behind bars for years.

"It is clear that minimum mandatory sentencing is a public policy failure," Anderson said.