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December 5, 2006 - Deseret Morning News (UT)

Top Court Won't Hear Salt Lake Man's Drug Case

By Geoffrey Fattah

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The nation's top court has let the 55-year mandatory sentence of a Salt Lake man stand by refusing to hear his case.

The case of Weldon Angelos, who was sentenced to a mandatory 55 years for selling marijuana, was among a list of cases released Monday that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected for consideration, shocking many in the legal field who say a constitutional review of minimum-mandatory federal sentences is long overdue.

Attorneys representing Angelos expressed disappointment in the news, calling it a "miscarriage of justice."

"We are extremely disappointed that the Supreme Court did not agree to hear the case," University of Utah law professor Erik Luna said. "This case presented a great opportunity for the Supreme Court not only to correct this miscarriage of justice but also to clarify the scope of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment."

Many legal experts had hoped that Angelos' case would be the first test case challenging mandatory sentences imposed by Congress. In this case specifically, it was the heavy punishment handed down for those who sell drugs with a firearm in their possession that minimum-mandatory opponents hoped would be reviewed.

"We are very disappointed that the Supreme Court refused to hear this case in which a low-level marijuana offender received what is effectively a life sentence," said Jeff Sklaroff, an attorney representing a group of 141 top former justice officials from across the country, including four former U.S. attorneys general, a former FBI director and other former federal judges and prosecutors who sided with Angelos in a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the court in October.

"Even the judge who imposed the sentence found that it was 'cruel, unjust and irrational,"' Sklaroff pointed out.

Angelos was convicted of selling 8-ounce bags of marijuana to an undercover informant on three occasions. Because the informant later testified that Angelos had a gun with him during two of the sales, a federal mandatory law kicked in.

When Angelos was sentenced in 2002, U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell issued a lengthy legal opinion, outlining his protest to a sentence that could mean the 26-year-old could be well into his 70s before being released.

Attorneys Troy Booher and Michael Zimmerman, a former chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, shared in the disappointment. "We hope that Congress will realize the injustice caused by its mandatory-minimum scheme and dispose of it without the court having to intervene," they said in a statement.

Federal prosecutors said they were pleased with the high court's decision, saying Angelos' sentence was in line with the will of Congress and did not run afoul of Supreme Court precedent.

"We are pleased that the Supreme Court denied the petition," U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said. "Congress has determined that armed drug trafficking is a particularly serious offense that warrants severe punishment."

Those close to the case say Angelos' options are very limited. Angelos has the option of appealing his sentence and conviction in a "writ of habeas corpus," but it would be reviewed by the same courts that have upheld his sentence.

Angelos' only other option is to seek clemency through a presidential pardon.

Angelos' family described him as an aspiring rap producer who is the father of two children.

"I'm just not going to accept that it's the end," said sister Lisa Angelos, who has fought to reduce her brother's sentence.

She said her family is still in shock from the news and many of them do not feel like celebrating Christmas. "I'm not accepting that it's the end," she said. "I won't, and I will do anything I can to bring him home."

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