Weldon Angelos could have hijacked a plane and spent less time in jail. But due to mandatory sentencing laws, the father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot – a term so long even the judge who gave it to him protested its injustice.
A group backed by the Koch brothers agrees, and is now fighting to get him out of prison.
Angelos is an extreme case: even though the crime was considered non-violent, Angelos carried a firearm during a series of marijuana sales to a Salt Lake City police informant – so federal mandatory minimums required that he be put in jail until he’s 80 years old.
Judge Paul Cassell protested the sentence when he was forced to make it in 2004, a move he told The Daily Beast he considers “the most unjust, lengthy sentence that I had to hand down.”
At the time of the trial, Cassell noted that Angelos’ sentence exceeded the minimum required for an individual convicted of airline hijacking, detonating a bomb intended to kill bystanders, and the exploitation of a child for pornography.
Angelos is now 35 years old and has spent some 11 years behind bars.
He has more than 40 years left to go. Even though his crime was non-violent, parole is not an option at the federal level.
His only hope for relief from his sentence is an order by the president.
“If we’re going to deprive someone of liberty, and deal with the high cost of incarceration, it better solve a problem. And in this case, it doesn’t solve any problem,” argued Mark Osler, Angelos’ lawyer, who filed a clemency petition on his behalf in 2012.
This is where the Koch brothers come in.
The case is being highlighted by Koch-backed group Generation Opportunity, which targets millenials, in a broader campaign to press for criminal justice reforms this year.
They will kick off the campaign with a documentary highlighting Angelos’ predicament, premiering at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum next week.
“[This year] offers a unique moment in history in which people of different backgrounds and political leanings are coming together to facilitate a substantive dialogue on how to fix [the criminal justice system],” said Evan Feinberg, the group’s president. “We can work towards a more just system that reflects the rule of law without overcriminalizing non-violent offenses.”
The new campaign will target the overcriminalization of non-violent crime, mandatory minimum laws, and helping criminals who have served their sentences reintegrate into society. The demilitarization of police and the excesses of civil asset forfeiture will also be addressed.
Generation Opportunity worked with Families Against Mandatory Minimums on the documentary. FAMM founder Julie Stewart was in the room during Angelos’ first sentencing hearing. It was, she said, a severe example of a worrisome trend in the criminal justice system.
In 1980, the average drug offense sentence was four years. Now, it’s more than nine years.
“Is the defendant twice as bad? Or have we just gone crazy with sentencing? I would say the latter,” Stewart told the Beast. For the Angelos case, she added, “we all know 55 years is too much.”
“A lot of people just thought that because of the amount of time my brother was [sentenced to], he had done something terrible, just because of the ignorance that is out there about mandatory sentencing,” said Lisa Angelos, Weldon’s older sister and advocate. “Before the case, I had no idea that this was possible in America.”
The judge who was forced to hand down the sentence, Paul Cassell, said the Angelos case is an example of “clear injustice marring the public perception” of the federal courts – and victimizing taxpayers who have to pay to keep him locked up.
“We have in place in our country today some very draconian penalties that distort our whole federal sentencing scheme,” Cassell said. “When people look at a case like Weldon Angelos and see that he got 55 years, and they see other cases where victims have gotten direct physical or psychological injuries and don’t see a similar [result] from the system, they start to wonder if the system is irrational.”
When he was sent to prison, Angelos’ children were small, now both are in their teens. Without their father, the family fell on hard financial times. His children rarely talk to him, Weldon’s sister says, because they can’t afford a cell phone on which they can be reached.
“When I tell him stories about his kids, you can tell how very hard it is for him to hear it… to know that he can’t be here,” Lisa Angelos said. “It’s destroyed him in many ways.”
The Angelos’ have waited for more than two years for word on their executive clemency request. The average successful clemency request takes approximately four years, according to his lawyer. Weldon Angelos deserves clemency, Osler said, because his sentencing “doesn’t correlate in this country with what’s wrong, and what those wrongs deserve.”
Disclosure: Five years ago, the author received a 10-week Koch Summer Fellowship.