When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department was going to change how it prosecuted nonviolent individuals who buy or sell illegal drugs, Holder said, “By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation — while making our expenditures smarter and more productive.”
Unfortunately, his proposal does not go far enough to limit some of the worst mandatory minimum sentences.
In 2004, my brother, Weldon Angelos, was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 55 years in federal prison, despite never committing or even threatening an act of violence. Just a few years before, he was on his way to becoming a superstar in the music industry. He had established his own record label and wrote and recorded songs with famous artists like Snoop Dogg. Unfortunately, he also used and sold marijuana.
In 2002, Salt Lake City police used a confidential informant to buy marijuana from my brother on two occasions. The informant said that my brother had a gun on both occasions; he said it was visible in Weldon’s car the first time and was in an ankle holster the second time. When police searched my brother’s house, they found additional drug paraphernalia, as well as guns stored in a locked safe.
My family and I knew Weldon was in trouble and would most likely face jail time. But we also knew that he had never been in trouble with the law, except for a nonviolent offense as a kid. Weldon had a young family and a promising career, and we hoped he would get a second chance before too long.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws took away that second chance. What many people do not realize is that federal gun mandatory minimum sentences can send people away for decades even if the gun owner has a right to own the gun and never uses it to threaten or harm anyone. In my brother’s case, having a gun in his car and ankle holster — and another gun in a bag in his apartment, which the police found during their search — were considered three separate crimes. He was deemed to have possessed those guns “in furtherance” of his marijuana sales.
Under federal law, one count of possessing a gun “in furtherance” of a drug crime adds a mandatory minimum term of five years to the underlying sentence. Every count after the first adds another 25 years. After being convicted of possessing a gun in those three instances, my brother received a sentence of 55 years (5+25+25) without parole in federal prison.
One of the most frustrating things we learned during Weldon’s ordeal is that the judge had no discretion to avoid such an excessive sentence. Judge Paul Cassell, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, was frustrated, too. He wanted to give my brother a stiff sentence — 8 to 10 years, based on the sentencing guidelines — but thought 55 years was absurd. At sentencing, Judge Cassell called Weldon’s punishment “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.” He said that repeat child rapists and airplane hijackers get much shorter sentences.
Weldon has been serving his sentence in Southern California, far from his family. His relationship with his children’s mother didn’t survive. His boys, who were 5 and 6 when he was sentenced, are growing up without their father. Weldon knows that it is his fault that he got into trouble, and he has to live with that pain and guilt. But 55 years for a drug offense in which no one was threatened or hurt is an inappropriate punishment.
My family prays that President Obama will commute Weldon’s sentence so my nephews will get a chance to know their father before they become fathers themselves. But we also pray that no other family has to go through what we have.
The attorney general’s speech was a step in the right direction, and we are aware that legislation has been introduced in Congress, including by Utah Sen. Mike Lee, to spare nonviolent offenders from draconian mandatory minimum sentences. These leaders need to know, however, that not everyone who owns or carries a gun is a violent criminal or drug kingpin. I urge them to look at the problems surrounding all mandatory minimum sentences and give judges the discretion that Judge Cassell didn’t have when he sentenced my brother.
Lisa Angelos lives in Sandy.