A three-judge panel from the US 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Monday found no problem with sentencing 27-year-old Salt Lake City resident Weldon Angelos to 55 years in prison for selling marijuana while armed. It upheld the mandatory minimum sentence issued under protest by US District Court Judge Paul Cassell, arguing that the draconian sentence reflected Congress' intent to severely punish crimes involving guns and drugs.
Angelos was convicted in 2003 of three counts of selling marijuana while carrying a pistol in an ankle holster. He was not accused of firing or even brandishing the weapon, merely having it on him when the deals went down. The amount of marijuana involved was 1 1/2 pounds. Married with two daughters and the owner of a fledgling rap music record label, Angelos had no prior convictions.
Prosecutors originally indicted Angelos on only one count of selling pot while armed, but when he refused a plea bargain, they went back to the grand jury and re-indicted him. This time he was charged with four counts. Under federal law, the first conviction on such a count garners a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, with each additional count bringing another 25-year mandatory minimum sentence to be served consecutively.
At Angelos' sentencing, Judge Cassell said sentencing laws forced him to impose a sentence that was "unjust, cruel, and irrational." On appeal, the case was joined by four former US attorneys general and 160 other former Justice Department officials and federal judges who filed an amicus brief calling Angelos' sentence "contrary to the evolving standards of decency which are the hallmark of our civilized society" and a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
Those evolving standards of decency apparently haven't made it past the front door of the federal courthouse in Denver, though. The appeals court panel not only rejected both decency and the constitutional claims, it went out of its way to accuse Angelos of crimes for which he was not convicted.
"Although the district court concluded that Angelos's sentence was disproportionate to his crimes, we disagree," the court said. "In our view, the district court failed to accord proper deference to Congress's decision to severely punish criminals who repeatedly possess firearms in connection with drug-trafficking crimes, and erroneously downplayed the seriousness of Angelos' crimes."
The three-judge panel said it took prosecutors at their word that Angelos was deeply involved in drug, gun, and gang activity, even though he was never charged with the crimes to which prosecutors referred. Prosecutor Robert Lund told the panel Angelos was "suspected" of trafficking a ton of pot, and Lund's word -- not a jury verdict -- was good enough for them. "Although it is true that Angelos had no significant adult criminal history, that appears to have been the result of good fortune rather than Angelos' lack of involvement in criminal activity," said the ruling, written by Judge Mary Beck Briscoe.
If someone ever needed to make the argument that "the law" and "justice" are not synonyms, he need look no further.