DENVER - A day after U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said too many criminals are getting light sentences, four of his predecessors told a federal court Wednesday that mandatory sentencing laws can result in unconstitutionally long prison terms.
The four, along with more than 150 other ex-Justice Department officials, filed a ''friend of the court'' brief with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, seeking to overturn a 55-year sentence given to a man for carrying a pistol - but never brandishing it - during a string of small marijuana deals.
Weldon Angelos of Salt Lake City was convicted in December 2003 of three counts of possessing a firearm while involved in a drug deal and 13 other drug and money-laundering charges.
Angelos, 25, owner of the rap-music label Extravagant Records, had no prior convictions.
U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell said federal law left him no choice but to hand down the 55-year term for the firearms counts - a sentence he said was ''unjust, cruel and irrational.'' He said the term was longer than federal sentences for kidnapping, rape, aircraft hijacking and even second-degree murder.
In a brief written by former Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Rimm, the former Justice Department officials said Congress has the right to enact harsh mandatory minimum sentences but said the current law dictated a sentence for Angelos that was ''grossly disproportionate'' to the crime and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
''[The sentence] is contrary to the evolving standards of decency which are the hallmark of our civilized society,'' he wrote.
Also signing the brief were former Attorneys General Janet Reno, Benjamin Civiletti, Griffin Bell and Nicholas Katzenbach, former FBI director William Sessions and numerous other former prosecutors and judges.
''It is a case in which the result is so startling that everybody just agreed that it should not be something that should be tolerated in a humane society,'' said John Martin Jr., a former U.S. attorney and district judge who signed the brief.
Angelos appealed in May. His attorney, Jerome Mooney, has said the case is the perfect example of the problems with minimum mandatory sentences.