Utah judge condemns sentencing laws, gives drug offender 55 years
Paul Foy THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SALT LAKE CITY -- A judge who condemned federal sentencing laws as "unjust, cruel and irrational" said Tuesday he had little choice but to sentence a first-time drug offender to 55 years and one day in prison.
U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell gave record producer Weldon Angelos the minimum 55 years for carrying a gun and one day for dealing marijuana and money laundering.
Cassell said Angelos will serve more time than rapists, murderers or airline hijackers.
The courtroom was packed with Angelos's family, friends and supporters for what promised to be a dramatic sentencing.
Cassell made an impassioned speech against draconian sentencing laws and appeared ready to defy them, but "he wasn't willing to step out of his role to be a lawmaker," said University of Utah criminal law professor Erik Luna.
"I'm disappointed the judge didn't go the extra step," said Angelos' attorney, Jerry Mooney.
Cassell said Angelos, 25, could have gotten another 78 months under sentencing guidelines, but the judge imposed the minimum. Angelos's lawyer plans to appeal. If that's unsuccessful, Angelos won't be eligible for release until he's 70, the judge said.
In his reluctant ruling, Cassell said he would call on President Bush to commute Angelos's sentence and Congress to change sentencing laws for drug offenders.
"This is the most difficult case I've decided since I took the bench two and a half years ago," Cassell said.
Angelos could have gotten up to eight years for the marijuana sales and money laundering offenses. Carrying a gun while committing the crimes piled on 55 more years.
Before trial, Angelos was offered a plea bargain with a 16-year sentence, but he strongly denied carrying a gun outside his home during three alleged drug transactions. That testimony came from an informant "of some disreputable background," Mooney said.
A jury exonerated Angelos of two other gun charges but convicted him of twice wearing a gun in an ankle holster and once carrying it in a briefcase. Angelos maintained the guns never left his home, where he kept them in a safe.
Prosecutor Robert Lunt said Angelos had been suspected of drug trafficking and money laundering for years and got what he deserved.
Last year's trial made news when the witness list included Snoop Dogg and other artists who had worked with Angelos, but Bad Azz was the only big name artist who ended up testifying. The defense argued Angelos made money legally through his work, while prosecutors claimed he used drug money to finance his music business, Extravagant Records.
On Tuesday, Lunt contended Angelos "habitually armed himself" and that his conviction stopped him from using it.
The stiff sentence was a deterrent: Utah gang leaders have told Lunt and other prosecutor that the Angelos case persuaded them to stop carrying guns, he said.
A group called Family Against Mandatory Minimum held signs protesting outside the courtroom, where Mooney cautioned them to blame Congress, not the judge.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Paul Warner criticized Cassell for making an issue of the laws at a sentencing.