For Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, the unfair prison sentence of one man from his home state helped spark his push to overhaul the nation’s criminal sentencing laws.
Lee on Thursday spoke about the case of Weldon Angelos, currently serving a 55-year prison sentence over three marijuana sales in a 72-hour period, to illustrate the worst of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and why he and others in Congress want to change them. Lee was one of nine Senate Republicans and Democrats at a news conference to support a proposed overhaul.
Provisions in a bill (S 502) Lee first introduced two years ago with Illinois Democrat Sen. Richard J. Durbin became key parts of the comprehensive and bipartisan Senate bill announced Thursday. At the press conference, which largely described the political wrangling to get bipartisan agreement, Lee focused on the case that crossed his desk more than a decade ago.
“That’s one of the reasons why when I got here I realized this was something I wanted to work on,” Lee said.
Lee told the story of being an appellate attorney who was consulted on the Angelos case. Angelos, a first-time offender and a father of two, made some mistakes and decided to sell marijuana, and “happened to have a gun on his person at the time,” Lee said.
Overlapping laws and their application to that case produced a 55-year mandatory minimum sentence, Lee said.
U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, now retired, lamented the law. “He looked at the law, he saw this was a manifestly unjust sentence, this man had clearly made some mistakes, and yet he didn’t deserve to be in prison until he was 80,“ Lee said Thursday.
In 2002, Salt Lake City police set up controlled drug deals between Angelos and a confidential informant, who reported to officers that Angelos had a gun but didn’t use it, according to a summary of the case from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group pushing to change the sentencing laws. 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 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.
Lee is among dozens of people who have urged President Barack Obama to commute Angelos’ sentence.
A group of lawyers, judges, former prosecutors and others in 2013 argued that the sentence was unfair in a letter asking Obama to commute it.
“His term of imprisonment exceeds the federal sentence for, among others, an aircraft hijacker, a second-degree murderer, a kidnapper, and a child rapist,” the group wrote. “In fact, the 55-year sentence for possessing a firearm three times in connection with minor marijuana offenses is more than twice the federal sentence for a kingpin of a major drug trafficking ring in which a death results, and more than four times the sentence for a marijuana dealer who shoots an innocent person during a drug transaction.”
The case stuck with Lee after his election to the Senate.
“Judge Cassell pointed out in his opinions that his hands were tied. There was nothing he could do,” Lee said Thursday. “The only institution that could change this outcome that could change this set of laws was Congress.”
Provisions in the proposed criminal sentencing overhaul bill would give Angelos a break on the length of his incarceration.
The bill would reduce the 25-year additional sentence Angelos got for the second and third counts to 15 years. And that sentencing increase would only count for convictions prior to the new charges, not those made within the same case as happened with Angelos.
Those provisions would also apply retroactively, meaning Angelos and others sentenced under those laws could seek to have their sentences reduced.
The Senate Judiciary staff summary of those provisions calls it “The Angelos problem.”