Weldon Angelos' supporters say he is a casualty in the war on drugs, an offender who deserves time behind bars but not a virtual life sentence for carrying a firearm while dealing pot in Utah.
Prosecutors, though, insist the former music producer's mandatory 55-year term is appropriate. They paint Angelos as major dealer who hooked up with a violent street gang, carried a gun while conducting his illicit business and made his living peddling large quantities of drugs.
"Addressing the epidemic social problem of armed drug distribution with increased punishment and deterrence is consistent with contemporary standards of decency," U.S. Attorney for Utah Paul Warner and assistant U.S. attorney Robert Lund write in a court brief.
The question of whether Angelos' mandatory minimum prison term is constitutional or violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment will be argued Tuesday before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The appeal of Angelos' conviction and sentence is being closely watched.
Dozens of former federal judges and prosecutors - including former Attorneys General Janet Reno, Benjamin Civiletti, Griffin Bell and Nicholas Katzenbach and former FBI director William Sessions - have signed a friend-of-the-court brief agreeing with Angelos that his sentence is unconstitutional.
"Irrational" punishment? The case that has caused such a furor began as a run-of-the-mill drug prosecution.
Angelos, now 26, the founder of Extravagant Records, was accused of selling marijuana to a police informant three times in May and June 2002, each time charging $350 for 8 ounces. At one sale, he had a gun strapped to his ankle, according to court records. At the other drug buys, there were firearms in the vicinity.
A federal grand jury originally indicted Angelos in November 2002 on one gun possession count, three counts of marijuana distribution and two lesser charges. After he rejected a plea bargain that would have sent him to prison for 16 years, prosecutors obtained a new indictment.
This one had 20 charges. When Angelos later asked to reopen negotiations, prosecutors said it was too late. In December 2003, a jury convicted him of 16 counts.
U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell reluctantly sentenced Angelos to a mandatory 55 years in prison, five years for the first gun-possession conviction and 25 years each for the next two, to be served one after the other. For 13 drug and money laundering counts, the judge imposed one additional day behind bars.
Cassell said federal minimum mandatory sentencing laws left him no choice but to mete out what he called an "unjust and cruel and even irrational" prison term. He then urged President Bush to commute the term to a more just punishment and called on Congress to modify the law so that 25-year multiple sentences apply only to "true recidivist drug offenders."
Serious crime, serious time: The U.S. Attorney's Office contends that Angelos is the kind of offender Congress had in mind when it enacted tough mandatory sentences for criminals who carry a firearm while committing a felony.
Prosecutors say Angelos sold large quantities of drugs and kept guns in his Salt Lake City apartment while doing business. In addition, they claim, he has ties with a street gang.
"Unquestionably, Congress was also informed with statistical data related to the nature and prevalence of drug trafficking and gun violence in this country, and the enormous financial and sociological costs associated with the problem," their brief says.
Prosecutors also say the potential for time off for good behavior should be taken into consideration, pointing out that Angelos' sentence could be reduced to about 46 years.
But defense attorney Jerome Mooney says the punishment is grossly disproportionate to the offense and a mandatory sentence law "is only likely to deter juries from convicting drug offenders, fearful of the application of horrific sentences that shock their conscience."
The appeal also challenges the legality of the search of Angelos' apartment and the claim that he "brandished" a gun during drug sales or even had one with him during the transactions.
The only person who claims to have seen a firearm at two of the marijuana transactions was an informant who received a "complete pass" on his own armed drug sales in return for his help, Mooney says. The lawyers contend no mention was made in initial police reports of a gun.
The government responds that the informant saw a 10 mm Glock pistol lodged between the seat and center console of Angelos' BMW during the first sale and the music producer lifted his pant leg to show the same gun in an ankle holster during the second sale.
"Displaying a firearm in that regard clearly constitutes use and brandishing," the prosecutors' brief says.
Angelos' relatives were shocked when the long sentence was handed down. They now are hoping for a reversal and Weldon Angelos' release from a federal prison in Southern California.
Sister Lisa Angelos said the wait is the hardest part. "This has totally devastated the family," she said.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.