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December 1, 2004 - The Daily (WA Edu)

Laws Without Order, Justice Without Mercy

By Stephen Butler, third year law student. His column appears every other Wednesday

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

When it came time to churn out my last piece of propaganda, I had no shortage of ideas. My first inclination was to go with something I had been formulating on affirmative action, explaining how anyone against affirmative action is racist, whether overtly or subconsciously.

My man Jerrel Wade recommended attempting to invoke the spirit of the late Ralph Wiley, to try to dissect the racist undertones of the Pistons-Pacers brawl, the suspensions and the resulting media commentary.

But when I read a Nov. 17 New York Times article about a federal sentencing in Salt Lake City, my choice was easy.

The Times story told of Weldon Angelos, a 25-year-old drug dealer, sentenced by Judge Paul Cassell to 55 years for selling "small bags of marijuana."

Because, according to trial testimony, Angelos also carried a pistol in an ankle holster while selling the marijuana, he was convicted of three counts of brandishing a firearm while engaging in drug trafficking. The first count carried a mandatory five-year term; the subsequent counts each called for an additional 25 years.

In "reluctantly" handing down the sentence, Cassell found himself constrained by the mandatory federal sentencing guidelines.

Perhaps you read this and find the punishment justified. Maybe you believe a "purveyor of poison" like Angelos (which is how the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case described him) deserves to be put away for a long time.

But please take a minute to reconcile his sentence with that of the man sentenced the same day as Angelos, who had been convicted of aggravated second-degree murder for beating an elderly woman with a log. In that murder case, Cassell was legally able to impose 22-year sentence.

The federal sentencing guidelines, established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and adopted by Congress, create a uniform system of punishment for the federal criminal system. Proponents laud the uniformity in the administration of punishment.

Critics -- among them judges -- cite the inflexibility to handle unique circumstances. I'll decry the crack-cocaine discrepancy and the favorable treatment of white-collar crime under the federal sentencing guidelines another day.

While those inequalities are racist, a casual observer may seek to justify them on grounds of inherent violence. What happened to Angelos is unjustifiable. Small time drug trafficking cannot compare with the taking of a life. Which begs the question of what is to be done in the face of bad laws?

I ask because I don't know. Federal judges hold their offices so long as they exhibit "good behavior," which translates to lifetime appointments.

But if Cassell had failed to sentence Angelos under the guidelines or established a pattern of flaunting the guidelines to achieve reasonable results, is that good behavior? Even had Cassell disregarded the mandate of the guidelines in Angelos' case, more than likely his decision would have been overturned at the circuit level.

In our current conservative era, which welcomes "judicial activism" like syphilis at an orgy, courts, under the guidance of the U.S. Supreme Court, constantly subject situations such as Angelos' to the same refrain: legislators make the law; judges apply the law. Yet why should Angelos have to wait for the legislature to fix a blatant error in judgment?

Is it not hypocritical for one to cherish the sanctity of life in proclaiming a fetus as a human being, but force a human being to endure overly brutal hardship because of a congressional faux pas, to leave him resigned to praying Congress realizes its mistake?

Are we so coarse of a society that a person with the power to make the right decision, particularly when an individual's life is in question, is left to follow lock-step the mandates of our elected officials? How can life be so valuable, and yet so worthless?

And I ask, if I were in Cassell's position, what would I do?

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