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Back to list of Dissenting Opinions of Judges

November 17, 2004 - The New York Times

Judge Questions Long Sentence in Drug Case

By Nick Madigan

SALT LAKE CITY, Nov. 16 - In a case that has spurred intense soul-searching in legal circles, a 25-year-old convicted drug dealer, who was arrested two years ago for selling small bags of marijuana to a police informant, was sentenced on Tuesday to 55 years in prison.

The judge who sentenced him, Paul G. Cassell of the United States District Court here, said that he pronounced the sentence "reluctantly" but that his hands were tied by a mandatory-minimum law that required the imposition of 55 years on Weldon H. Angelos because he had a gun during at least two of the drug transactions.

"I have no choice," Judge Cassell said to Mr. Angelos, who seemed frozen in place as the extent of the sentence became apparent.

The judge then urged Mr. Angelos's lawyer, Jerome H. Mooney, not only to appeal his decision but to ask President Bush for clemency once all appeals were exhausted. He also urged Congress to set aside the law that made the sentence mandatory.

Judge Cassell said that sentencing Mr. Angelos to prison until he is 70 years old was "unjust, cruel and even irrational," but that the law that forced him to do so had not proved to be unconstitutional and thus had to stand. The sentence was all the more ironic, he said, because only two hours earlier he had been legally able to impose a sentence of 22 years on a man convicted of aggravated second-degree murder for beating an elderly woman to death with a log. That crime, he argued, was far more serious.

Mr. Angelos's wife, Zandrah, who sat in court with the couple's two boys, aged 5 and 7, began crying. "He might as well have killed someone," she said bitterly, wiping her eyes, referring to her husband. "He should have done worse than he did if he was going to get 55 years."

The question of Mr. Angelos's sentence was at the center of a debate as to whether it was fair to send a minor drug dealer to prison for 55 years when a murderer, rapist or terrorist, according to the same sentencing directives, would ordinarily receive no more than about 25 years.

During a court hearing in September, Judge Cassell posed a question to the opposing legal teams in the case: "Is there a rational basis," he asked, "for giving Mr. Angelos more time than the hijacker, the murderer, the rapist?"

The sentence against Mr. Angelos, the founder of the rap music label Extravagant Records, stemmed from his conviction on three counts of possession of a firearm while engaged in drug trafficking. The first count carried a mandatory five-year sentence, with each subsequent count calling for 25 years.

According to trial testimony, Mr. Angelos was carrying a pistol in an ankle holster while selling marijuana. He was not accused of brandishing the weapon or threatening anyone with it.

But in court on Tuesday, Robert Lund, an assistant United States attorney who prosecuted the case, called Mr. Angelos a "purveyor of poison," and said he had been dealing drugs for more than four years before his arrest. Carrying a gun in the commission of such crimes, he said, meant that Mr. Angelos was prepared "to kill other human beings."

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