Weldon Angelos was a 23-year-old father of two with a squeaky-clean criminal record when he sold $350 worth of weed out of his Utah home in 2003.
He’s now 32, his record is extensive, and his home is a medium-security federal prison in Lompoc, California. Over the protests of his supporters and most other people with common sense, he is just nine years into a 55-year sentence.
A group of 114 supporters and reformers is now petitioning President Barack Obama to pardon Angelos and set him free. They include a former FBI director, ex-judges and prosecutors, former Utah politicians, scholars and prominent activists.
The trouble for Angelos started when he was caught selling $350 worth of bud in 2003. Police searched his home and said they found guns, though Angelos denied keeping any in the house. No one disputes that no guns were used or brandished during the deal.
Pot possession and sale are illegal under federal law. Penalties increase dramatically when firearms are present. Possessing a firearm during a drug transaction is punishable by five years on a first offense. On each subsequent offense, the penalty is 25 years.
According to prosecutors, Angelos was offered a deal of 15 years in prison on a single conviction for drug distribution and firearm possession. But he refused, and they responded by piling on nearly every charge they could think of, 20 in total.
Angelos was convicted on 16 counts of weapons possession, drug trafficking and money laundering after a week-long trial in December 2003. He was sent to the prison in Lompoc, where he remains – and will remain until 2059. There is no parole or early release in the federal system.
Even the judge who sentenced him expressed frustration at the mandatory minimum sentence he was forced to impose. He called the outcome “unjust, cruel and irrational” and “one of those rare cases where the system has malfunctioned.”
Federal prosecutors in Utah clearly wanted to make an example out of Angelos, as one of them noted: “This sends the message that people who engage in armed drug dealing are going to face very serious consequences,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lund said in 2004.
Angelos appealed, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver shot him down two years later. Soon after, the Supreme Court denied his petition for a hearing.
His only hope now is a pardon by Obama. It’s not clear what his chances are, but he has always had a strong base of supporters, including some high in government, who feel a draconian system of mandatory minimum sentences has led to penalties that far outweigh the crimes they’re meant to punish.
“We can’t put a fellow like that in jail for 55 years,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, said earlier this year.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy expressed problems with the case in September.
“There is no question that Mr. Angelos committed a crime and deserved to be punished,” Leahy said. “But 55 years? Mr. Angelos will be in prison until he is nearly 80 years old. His children, only 5 and 6 at the time of his sentencing, will be in their 60s. American taxpayers will have spent more than $1.5 million locking him up.”