Cassell on Weldon Angelos’ release: ‘We shouldn’t rely on serendipity in a federal criminal justice system that prides itself on rationality and justice.’

Weldon Angelos, whose name in the past decade has often been at the center of national public policy discussions related to mandatory minimum prison terms for non-violent drug offenders, has been released from prison and has returned home to Salt Lake City.

University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law professor Paul G. Cassell in February asked President Barack Obama to commute the sentence of Weldon Angelos, a music producer who was sentenced to 55 years in prison in 2004 in connection with selling marijuana.  Angelos’ sentence was not commuted, but he received early release this week.

Cassell late Friday said he is pleased Angelos has been released from prison, but national discussion on mandatory minimum sentencing needs to continue to make sure other injustices similar to those in Angelos’ case do not occur.

“It’s great to see that the injustice in the Angelos case has been rectified, but we need systemic reform to make sure these kinds of injustices never occur in other cases.  Angelos’ case was resolved with a serendipitous fix,” Cassell said.Paul_Cassell_e1davh

“We shouldn’t rely on serendipity in a federal criminal justice system that prides itself on rationality and justice,” he said.

In the letter sent to Obama in February, Cassell, a former federal judge who handed down the sentence to Angelos in Salt Lake City’s U.S. District Court, called the case “one of the most troubling that I ever faced in my five years on the federal bench.”

The case was the chief reason Cassell chose to step down from the federal bench. Now a professor, Cassell, who has published numerous law review articles on criminal justice issues, asked Obama to grant clemency in the case.

The letter Cassell wrote to Obama in February outlined why Cassell felt Angelos’ sentence was unfair.

“I write you as the judge who sentenced Weldon Angelos to a 55-year mandatory minimum prison term for non-violent drug offenses,” Cassell wrote in the opening paragraph of the letter. “In 2004 when I was forced to impose that sentence, I wrote a lengthy opinion explaining why that sentence was ‘unjust.’ United States v. Angelos, 345 F. Supp. 2d 1227, 1230 (D. Utah 2004). Indeed, at the time, I wrote that ‘to correct what appears to be an unjust sentence, the court also calls on the president — in whom our Constitution reposes the power to correct unduly harsh sentences — to commute Mr. Angelos’ sentence to something that is more in accord with just and rational punishment.’ Id. Now that Mr. Angelos has served more than 12 years in prison, I once again want to call on you to commute his sentence. I thus write in strong support of a clemency petition that he has filed.”

The February letter to Obama was not the first time Cassell has sought a presidential pardon in the case of Angelos. Cassell previously implored former President George Bush to commute the sentence, calling it “unjust, cruel and irrational.”

Other calls to commute Angelos’ sentence came from a host of other people, including former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, Sen. Mike Lee, HBO comedian John Oliver, FBI Director Bill Sessions, California Attorney General John Van de Kamp and former Utah Chief Justice Michael Zimmerman.

Angelos case started in 2002. Angelos — the founder of Utah hip-hop label Extravagant Records — sold marijuana to a police informant three times in May and June 2002, each time charging $350. He was indicted in federal court on one gun possession count, three counts of marijuana distribution and two lesser charges. Prosecutors claimed Angelos was a gang member and drug dealer who had a gun strapped to his ankle during one of the drug sales to informants. Angelos denied those allegations and declined a plea bargain offered by prosecutors. The Offices of the U.S. Attorneys called the offer Angelos rejected a “huge break,” then obtained a new indictment with 20 charges that mandated a minimum 105-year sentence.

A jury convicted Angelos in 2003 of 16 counts of drug trafficking, weapons possession and money laundering. One charge was dismissed, and the jury acquitted Angelos of three charges.

Cassell, the U.S. district court judge assigned to Angelos’ case in Salt Lake City, sentenced the man to a minimum mandatory 55-year sentence: Five years on the first weapons conviction and 25 years each for the next two counts, as required by law.

Cassell outlined several reasons the sentence should be commuted in his letter to Obama —reasoning that likely applies to other cases involving minimum mandatory sentences.

“So what, some may say, if he spends more years in prison than might be theoretically justified? It is common wisdom that ‘if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime,’” Cassell wrote. “The problem with this simplistic position is that it overlooks other interests that are inevitably involved in the imposition of a criminal sentence. I resigned my position as a federal judge to return to law teaching — and to work on behalf of crime victims. Of course, in some circumstances, lengthy prison sentences can help protect crime victims. But unduly long sentences can be harmful from a crime victims’ perspective. For example, crime victims expect that the penalties the court imposes will fairly reflect the harms that they have suffered. When the sentence for actual violence inflicted on a victim is dwarfed by a sentence for carrying guns to several drug deals, the implicit message to victims is that their pain and suffering counts for less than some abstract ‘war on drugs.’”

To read the letter in its entirety, click here.

Cassell will continue to work on efforts related to policy discussion of mandatory minimum sentences in his role as a professor.