SALT LAKE CITY – The 55-year prison term for a Utah music producer convicted of selling $350 worth of marijuana while keeping guns in his house should be commuted, say a number of prominent people who are petitioning President Barack Obama to release the young man.
The appeal was filed at the White House on Wednesday by an ex-FBI director, former judges and prosecutors together with scholars and notable one-time Utah politicians including Norm Bangerter and Jake Garn. Also adding their signatures were social activists including Daniel Ellsberg and singer Bonnie Rait — in all, 114 people.
Weldon Angelos has been held up as an example of what's wrong with mandatory sentences. He had no criminal record. Even the judge who sentenced him called it "unjust, cruel and irrational" and "one of those rare cases where the system has malfunctioned."
The father of two was 23 when he was put behind bars in 2004. Angelos founded Extravagant Records in Utah, a producer of hip hop and rap music.
His case drew outrage from many notable people. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told Fox News earlier this year, "We can't put a fellow like that in jail for 55 years." As recently as Sept. 18, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, underscored Angelos' predicament during a hearing to reevaluate federal minimum sentences.
"There is no question that Mr. Angelos committed a crime and deserved to be punished. But 55 years?" Leahy said. "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."
Angelos denied he had any guns in his house; police said they found several guns while searching his apartment. But he never brandished or used a gun during a pot sale, according to testimony at his federal trial.
Prosecutors have said Angelos caused his own trouble by rejecting a plea offer for a 15-year sentence for a single drug distribution and firearm count. Prosecutors took the offer off the table and got a new indictment with 20 charges. Angelos was convicted after a seven-day trial in December 2003 of 16 counts of drug trafficking, weapons possession and money laundering.
The penalty for possessing firearms during a drug transaction is a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the first offense and 25 years for each subsequent transaction. There is no parole in the federal system.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah declined comment. In 2004, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lund said of Angelos' sentence, "This sends the message that people who engage in armed drug dealing are going to face very serious consequences."
Two years later, the sentence was upheld by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Angelos' petition for a hearing.
Angelos is incarcerated at a federal prison in Lompoc, California
"He is doing OK," Lisa Angelos, Weldon's sister, told The Salt Lake Tribune. "He is getting very excited for the submission of this letter and he is extremely overwhelmed with joy and appreciation (for) everyone's efforts. He feels extremely blessed to have so many people supporting him."
In a statement relayed by his sister, Angelos said that he and his family "are encouraged by this bipartisan show of support. It's certainly a diverse group of influential people, and we hope it makes a difference when President Obama decides who will receive clemency this holiday season."