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President Barack Obama's sweeping action last week commuting the prison sentences of 46 drug offenders was hailed as a signal for the need to reform draconian sentencing guidelines that prevent judges from using their discretion in individual cases.
But a number of people, including high-profile Utahns, were stunned that the man many call the poster child for such reform was left off the list.
Weldon Angelos, who at the time was a record producer in Salt Lake City, was convicted in 2003 of 16 felony counts of drug peddling and weapons violations.
The result of an undercover sting, it was the first time Angelos had been arrested and the weapons violations were included because he had possession of a gun during the transactions.
Because of the gun possession (he never brandished the weapon or acted in a threatening manner) federal mandatory guidelines required then-U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell to send the then-25-year-old Angelos to prison for 55 years, although Cassell said when he imposed the sentence that it was unfair and far too harsh. His hands, though, were tied.
Cassell delayed the sentencing for nearly a year after the December 2003 conviction, waiting for studies and judicial opinions on the guidelines that he hoped would find them unconstitutional.
But after his own exhaustive research, he concluded he could not find the law unconstitutional and imposed what amounts to a life sentence for Angelos, who was convicted of selling about $350 worth of marijuana on three occasions.
At the sentencing, the judge called on then-President George W. Bush to use his power to commute it to a shorter term.
Cassell, now a law professor at the University of Utah, has commented on the unjust sentence several times since, and as late as February, said in a television interview that the sentence was unfair not only to Angelos but also to U.S. taxpayers.
Angelos' cause has been taken up by conservatives and liberals. A petition a few years ago asking for a presidential commutation was signed by former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, a self-proclaimed liberal, and former Republican U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, as well as blues singer Bonnie Raitt.
A documentary on Angelos' plight, released earlier this year, was funded by the tea-party backing Koch brothers. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has assumed a huge role, co-sponsoring a bill to reform federal sentencing guidelines and championing Angelos' argument for commutation.
"I have long been troubled by the excessive punishments required by our harsh mandatory sentencing laws," Lee said in a statement after Angelos was not included in the latest commutation list. "That is why I am working hard on legislation that would reform federal sentencing law. I applaud the president for using his constitutional authority to correct some of the excesses of these laws. The 55-year sentence imposed in Weldon Angelos' case is a sad example of such excess."
Lee wrote to Obama earlier this year urging him to commute Angelos' sentence.
"The 55-year sentence was grossly disproportionate to the facts of Weldon's case," Lee wrote, echoing Cassell's earlier comparison of Angelos' punishment to the guideline-based sentences "for a major drug-trafficking kingpin (238 months), an aircraft hijacker (293 months), and the rapist of a 10-year-old child (135 months)."
Former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman, a longtime advocate for sentencing reform who recently testified before Congress on the subject, said the irony is that Angelos may have been denied commutation this round because Obama wants to keep him as a poster child for sentencing reform as he tries to persuade Congress to pass the legislation Lee is co-sponsoring with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
"If this [Angelos] would have been a case in state court, he would have gotten six months," Tolman said. "But in the federal system, he got 55 years."
Lisa Angelos, who lives in Sandy, told me that her brother tries to stay positive, but it gets harder every time he is passed up for commutation. She said the one thing that keeps family members going is the support they have received, especially from Lee, who met recently with them before he sent the letter to Obama.
Weldon Angelos is the father of three children who were 6, 5 and a few months old at the time he went to prison. The oldest is now 18.