- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2004

Last week, Utah federal Judge Paul G. Cassell handed a 22-year sentence to a man who beat an elderly woman to death with a log. A few hours later, Judge Cassell sentenced a 25-year-old first-time drug offender to 55 years.

If you think Judge Cassell liked sentencing a small-change drug dealer to more time than a violent killer, guess again. The judge had no choice. Federal law demanded the sentence, despite Judge Cassell’s pointed questioning if there was a “rational basis” for sentencing Weldon H. Angelos, the father of two young children, to more time than he could sentence a hijacker, murder or rapist.

Blame federal mandatory minimum sentencing rules. A jury found Angelos guilty on three separate charges of possessing a firearm while he sold a half-pound of marijuana for $350. The first charge of possessing a gun during a drug transaction brought a five-year sentence — the second two charges brought 25 years each. That adds up to 55 years, so even if Angelos were found guilty of selling $1,050 of drugs, Judge Cassell had to follow the rules and sentence him to 55 years on the gun charges. (The judge did use a recent federal ruling in reducing the sentence for the drug-selling crimes to one day.)

Judge Cassell was right to impose the draconian sentence. If he ignored federal law, he would place himself above it.

Instead, Judge Cassell sentenced Angelos as the law directed, even as he righteously hectored Congress to rewrite federal drug laws so first-time offenders don’t serve more time than dangerous career criminals. The judge also urged Angelos’ attorney, Jerome H. Mooney, to appeal the sentence and, if appeals fail, seek a presidential commutation.

While civil-rights advocates across America protested the sentence, the Utah U.S. Attorney’s office defended the system. To prosecutors, Angelos is no Boy Scout. Officials found some 26 empty duffel bags with marijuana residue. Local feds believed Angelos was a big drug dealer, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lund told me, and associated with a violent street gang.

Let me say this: Angelos never was a good poster boy for the movement to humanize draconian federal drug laws. Angelos turned down a plea-bargain sentence of 16 years. He is considered a first-time offender only because a juvenile gun conviction was expunged from his record. And even if Angelos didn’t wave his gun in people’s faces, he nonetheless brought a gun with him during the transactions.

But Angelos has become a national cause celebre because of Judge Cassell. There are more egregious examples of first-time offenders sentenced to decades for petty dealing, but they didn’t come before a judge vocally opposed to the heavy-handed nature of federal drug sentencing.

That said, it simply doesn’t make sense that federal sentences often are tougher on small-time drug offenders than on violent criminals. But it happens all the time.

Just last week, the Albuquerque Journal reported on a case in which a federal judge claimed he sentenced a man who killed his own mother to 61/2 years after he sentenced a 29-year-old mother of three to life without parole because she had a gun while dealing marijuana.

It’s not right. Congress passed tough federal drug laws because Washington wanted harsh time for drug kingpins. But too often, prosecutors cut deals that reduce sentences for drug ringleaders who inform on other offenders. Prosecutors then show no mercy to low- and mid-level offenders. Often, it’s the worst criminals who figure out how to game the system. Angelos’ attorney says the informant who testified against Angelos had a “bad” rap sheet.

In effect, Angelos is set to spend an extra 30 years in prison — assuming he is let out for good behavior — simply because he wouldn’t agree to a plea bargain with the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Note that at one point, prosecutors agreed justice would be served if Angelos served 16 years. Now, they defend a sentence that far outstrips the time many killers serve.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, based in Washington, estimates it will cost $1.3 million to jail Angelos.

The cost to Angelos: life behind bars until he is well into his twilight years. His sister told the Salt Lake Tribune 55 years will be “worse than a death in the family” as the terms will present “constant torture.”

Judge Cassell called the sentence “unjust, cruel and even irrational.” Too bad that in Washington, the federal sentencing system is so highly popular.

Mr. Mooney, Angelos’ attorney, called the sentence “obscene” and said he would appeal to the Denver-based U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Mr. Mooney said Angelos, father of a 6-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl, heard the judge’s decision “and looked as if someone had just punched him in the stomach.”

Debra Saunders is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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