Policy

Utah Senator Meets Inmate Who Inspired Sentencing Law Rewrite

Hip-hop music figure became symbol of a cause

Sen. Mike Lee, left, made Weldon Angelos, who met with the senator in his office, a living symbol of the push to overhaul sentencing laws. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Mike Lee has told the story of Weldon Angelos’ prison term hundreds of times, describing the 55-year sentence over three marijuana sales in 72 hours as “crazy” and “nuts.”

An improbable set of events brought the two men together Wednesday in the Utah Republican's office on Capitol Hill. The recently freed Angelos hugged the lawmaker who made him a living symbol of the  push to overhaul the nation’s sentencing laws.

“I’ve been telling his story a lot,” Lee said during the meeting. “A lot of the time I was telling this good story, I would sit there and wonder, actually, I wonder if he’s going to care if I’m using his name this frequently.”  

“But your story was very helpful in explaining to people why we need this legislation and why we need to reform the law,” Lee told Angelos, who has two sons, ages 19 and 17, and a daughter, age 13.  

Angelos, 36 and the founder of a hip-hop music label, said he met others in prison with unjust sentences. He plans to tell his story himself in Washington in support of the bipartisan bill. The legislation appears unlikely to pass in this election-shortened year, and amid disagreements among Republicans in both chambers.  

“It kept me together, and my family,” Angelos said to Lee. “Your support was amazing and I just wanted to come here and thank you personally for supporting me and your commitment to criminal justice reform.”  

Lee has credited Angelos' case, which has attracted national attention, for sparking his work to change sentencing laws.  

Utah Senator Meets Inmate Who Inspired Sentencing Law Rewrite (Video)

[ 'Sentencing Reform' is Seriously Stuck ]  

The legal action that freed Angelos on May 31 is somewhat mysterious and extraordinary. There is recent action in his court case — but no sign of a judge’s order releasing him. Lee said President Barack Obama set in motion a way to reopen the case and seek his release.  

It wasn’t a commutation or pardon but “another type of action,” Lee said.  

The senator, a former assistant U.S. attorney, is among dozens of people who have urged Obama to commute Angelos’ sentence, including former U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, who sentenced Angelos.  

That shows what a lot of extra attention on a case can accomplish, said Molly Gill, government affairs counselor for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that flew Angelos to Washington this week and is working to end the types of sentencing laws that resulted in his sentence.  

“But it also shows there are a lot a people who don’t have and are never going to have that level of support,” Gill said.  

Lee said Angelos’ release does not undercut the need for the legislation, since there are others out there who can’t get relief like Angelos. “We know there’s more to be done,” Lee said.  

A provision in the bill would prevent prosecutors from stacking mandatory minimum sentences related to certain gun possession crimes together in one case. It would reduce that mandatory minimum sentence from 25 years to 15 years. It would also allow judges to reduce the sentence for prisoners who are in Angelos’ situation.  

Angelos was a first-time offender who was arrested in 2002 after Salt Lake City police set up controlled drug deals between Angelos and a confidential informant. The informant reported to officers that Angelos had a gun but didn’t use it, according to a summary of the case from FAMM.  

[ The Human Face of Criminal Justice Overhaul ]  

Police later found a gun in a bag when searching Angelos’ home, FAMM said. A jury convicted him of 13 charges, including three counts of possession of a gun in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.  

Angelos in 2004 received a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the first charge of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime; a consecutive 25-year sentence for the second, and another consecutive 25-year sentence for the third, FAMM said.  

After nearly 12 years in federal prison, Angelos was surrounded Wednesday by the dark wood and art in Lee’s office.  

“It’s just overwhelming,” Angelos said. “I feel like I’m in a dream.”

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