55-year term is 'torture' for Angelos family

"Worse than a death": The convicted man's relatives see the mandatory sentence as a monstrous injustice
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Weldon Angelos missed his sister's wedding this year as he awaited sentencing on federal gun and drug charges, an absence that almost made Lisa Angelos, of Sandy, reschedule her big day.

But a bigger blow came Tuesday when Angelos, a first-time offender, was handed a 55-year mandatory prison term, a virtual life sentence in the federal system where there is no parole.

"It's worse than a death in the family because 55 years is constant torture," Lisa Angelos said Wednesday, the day after stunned relatives watched U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell reluctantly impose the sentence on the 25-year-old Utah record producer.

The blow was particularly hard - and the case has drawn national attention - because Cassell had been exploring whether the stiff minimum mandatory sentence required for Angelos' gun convictions was constitutional.

In the end, the judge called on President Bush to commute the "irrational" sentence, but said he had no choice but to impose it.

Weldon's father, James Angelos, of Midvale, is furious.

"Those mandatory minimum sentences are putting the little guys in prison," James Angelos, 75, said. "They should do time, but give them a chance."

Angelos' relatives were sharing their story with national media Wednesday, but advocates fear the case will drive neither the commutation urged by Cassell nor wholesale changes in sentencing laws.

Angelos, who had no prior convictions, was originally indicted on one gun possession count, three counts of marijuana distribution and two lesser charges.

He was accused of selling marijuana to a police informant three times in May and June 2002, each time charging $350 for 8 ounces. At one sale, Angelos had a gun strapped to his ankle, according to court records. At the other drug buys, a gun was present in the vicinity.

Angelos declined a plea deal to serve 15 years. In response, the U.S. Attorney's Office obtained a new indictment with 20 charges mandating a minimum 105-year sentence.

When Angelos asked to reopen negotiations, prosecutors refused. Last December, a jury in Salt Lake City convicted him of 16 counts of drug trafficking, weapons possession and money laundering. One charge was dismissed, and the jury acquitted Angelos of three.

Angelos started Extravagant Records, which produces rap and hip hop. The defense argued Angelos made money legally by producing albums, but authorities said his income stemmed from drug dealing.

Minimum mandatory sentencing laws required him to serve five years for the first weapons count and 25 years each for the two that had been added, to be served consecutively.

Cassell added one day for the 13 other counts, and objected that child rapists and killers generally serve less time for their offenses. But Cassell said his hands were tied, citing the separation of powers that gives Congress the final say in setting criminal penalties.

Angelos, who did not speak at his sentencing, was crushed, defense attorney Jerome Mooney said Wednesday.

"He's numb at this point," Mooney said. "The judge was sending us signals that he knew this was an improper and unfair sentence."

This could be the first time a federal judge has called for presidential clemency while sentencing a defendant, said New York City lawyer Jeffrey Sklaroff.

Sklaroff co-authored a friend-of-the-court brief signed by 29 former federal prosecutors and judges, asking Cassell to declare the mandated sentences unconstitutional.

"This is an incredible example of how this country works," Sklaroff said. "[Cassell] said these facts cry out for relief."

Prosecutors have countered that Congress passed mandatory minimum sentence laws because it recognized the danger of mixing guns and drug dealing. These stiff terms serve as a deterrent, they say.

Sklaroff and Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, agree the chances of a sentence reduction from Bush or a repeal of mandatory minimums are slim.

Mooney plans to file an appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. For now, Angelos and his family are confronting reality.

Utah has no federal prison, and Angelos has requested to serve his time in a Southern California facility. Zandrah Uyan, his childhood sweetheart who became his wife and the mother of his 5- and 7-year-old sons, plans to move nearby.

Although the youngsters know about the sentence, Mooney says, they're unaware of what it means.

"They will as they get older," he said. "I don't see any way for them to grow up except to be bitter."

Uyan, 25, is still in shock about the sentence. She had hoped the judge, based on his request for briefs discussing whether mandatory minimums are constitutional, would impose a much shorter term.

"There are moments where I feel like I'm falling apart, but then I pull myself together," she said. "I'm still in denial. I think it can't be 55 years."