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December 9, 2006

Should Weldon Angelos get a rare commutation?

The Washington Post today has this notable editorial entitled "Commute This Sentence: A clemency case not even President Bush can ignore -- or can he?"  Here are highlights:

The Supreme Court this week declined to review the case of Weldon Angelos, leaving in place his obscene sentence of 55 years in prison for small-time marijuana and gun charges.  The high court's move is no surprise; the justices have tended to uphold draconian sentences against constitutional challenge.  But it confronts President Bush with a question he will have to address: Is there any sentence so unfair that he would exert himself to correct it?

So far, Mr. Bush hasn't found one.  He has commuted only two sentences, both of inmates who were about to be released anyway.  Mr. Angelos, by contrast, is a young man and a first-time offender who is now likely to spend the rest of his life in prison.  His crime?  He sold $350 in marijuana to a government informant three times -- and carried, but did not display, a gun on two of those occasions. Police found other guns and pot at his house.

The U.S. district judge who sentenced him in Utah, Paul G. Cassell, declared the mandatory sentence in this case "unjust, cruel, and even irrational."...  And in an extraordinary act, he explicitly called on Mr. Bush to use his clemency powers to offer what he as a judge could not: justice.  Judge Cassell recommended that Mr. Bush commute the sentence to 18 years, which he described as "the average sentence recommended by the jury that heard this case."

Mr. Bush put Judge Cassell on the bench....  His exceptional discomfort with this case -- and his passionate plea for presidential mercy -- ought to carry weight even with a president so disinclined to use the powers the Constitution gives him to remedy injustices.

With all due respect, I question whether Weldon Angelos ought to be the Washington Post's poster child in a call for President Bush to make better use of his clemency powers.  Though I view Angelos' sentence to be much longer than needed, there are thousands of other non-violent drug offenders in the federal system who are serving sentences much longer than necessary because of mandatory sentencing provisions.  (Consider, for example, the story of Clarence Aaron discussed in this recent commentary.)

Though I commend the Post for encouraging President Bush to make better use of his clemency powers, it ought to use the Angelos case as a springboard for a broader discussion of the problems of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.

Some related posts on the Angelos case and the clemency power:

December 9, 2006 at 10:17 AM | Permalink


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A drug dealer carrying a gun. Hmmmm. It would be interesting to know what else this guy was doing. While I am a bit sympathetic to this guy's plight, drug dealers who carry guns are a menace, and what's this guy gonna do when he gets out?

There should be a wait and see attitude with this guy. See what he does in prison before commutation. And at a minimum, he needs to spend at least a dozen years behind bars.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 9, 2006 12:09:33 PM

As usual you seem to miss the point. A society that gives a life senetence for selling 1000 dollars of a substance that is legal in other parts of the world is not only barbaric but stupid.

Posted by: [email protected] | Dec 9, 2006 1:08:27 PM

What "federalist" is saying is that twelve years would be a fairer sentence, and isn't that the point? It would also be interesting to know what else federalist is doing, no, that would be irrelevant. Crime and punishment is not a crystal ball, some Ouija board game. If Angelos was committing other crimes, prove them before a jury, because though close, we no longer sentence on a lone, godly statistician's hearsay of "probably" or "maybe." Wait, yes we do, but it is no longer allowed into evidence during the sentencing hearing. Wait, yes it is. Angelos was sentenced based in part on crimes not proven. Was it income tax evasion?

Speaking of which, since One of every three people, perhaps as many as one of every two, is doing it, the Feds really ought to throw "federalist" in jail for income tax evasion, just in case.

This WP editorial likely is a springboard. How often do we hear of any of these cases in mainstream media?

Posted by: George | Dec 9, 2006 1:36:30 PM

That marijuana may be legal elsewhere is irrelevant to the inquiry. State sanctioned amputation for theft is legal elsewhere, but that in no way makes it acceptable here. Angelo most assuredly knew what he was doing was illegal as well as dangerous, that is why he brought the gun and that is why he was punished so severely. I have no problem with a clemency petition and agree it should be used more aggresively but perhaps he should prove worthy before we just say here you go and give him a forty year reduction in sentence.

Whether the penalty is barbaric and stupid is admittedly a separate question. One most appropriately directed to the elected officials who enacted the law or who sought it in court through their appointed prosecutors.

Posted by: David | Dec 9, 2006 1:51:13 PM

I'll agree with the other commenters who suggest that Angelos wasn't just a good guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, but what's wrong with an 18-year prison sentence for what he did? He's an armed drug dealer who got caught, but is it really necessary to ensure that he dies in prison?

I'll also agree with Prof. Berman that Angelos isn't the best poster child for a change in President Bush's clemency powers--the only thing particularly unique about Angelos is the way Judge Cassell wrote his opinion. If President Bush commutes his sentence, he won't be remedying the worst injustice in the federal system -- rather, he'll be plucking Angelos out of a crowd of similarly situated people and singling him out for mercy. I'm not sure what I think of that.

Posted by: Bill | Dec 9, 2006 2:07:43 PM

The vitriol is amazing. I should be thrown in jail? What, because I think that armed drug dealers are problematic? Or that I wonder about what else this guy has been doing?

Posted by: federalist | Dec 11, 2006 1:38:01 PM

Dear Federalist
Your right your comment doesn't deserve such vitrol. It is a more rational and reasonable comment then the actual situation.. However the complete irrationality of the sentence and the system is forcing comments to either one side or the other the middle path of compromise, reason and wisdom has resulted in the world largest penal system in the and is a disgrace


Posted by: srbreg | Dec 11, 2006 2:30:15 PM

It is certainly possible to argue about how sentencing policies that produce such sentences, and I think it fair to look at prison beds as finite resources. But we must never forget that mistakes happen in favor of lenience with some pretty harsh consequences for those who happen to suffer them. When the Washington Post editorial board gets as worked up about those situations as it does over the plight of a dangerous offender such as Angelos, then I will take their bleatings more seriously.

Lenient sentences, in particular those given to violent offenders, have a huge cost in blood. I ask that those who think that we are too harsh in our sentencing policies remember that.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 11, 2006 3:38:35 PM

My My when will Willie Horton ever die. I know the Washington Post is a mouthpiece for the liberal establishment. Blah Blah BlahWhy is it that the states that have a dropping crime rate also have a dropping prison rate? What are the number of mistakes? How many homicides and/or rapes are a result of mercy? Why is it that anecdotal evidence is ok to provide excuses to take ones liberty? Maybe you can volunteer to be a witness for an execution and than tell us how many people it brought back and the 2 million dollars spent could not have been put to better use

Posted by: srbreg | Dec 11, 2006 4:19:59 PM

I would have zero, and I mean zero, problems witnessing an execution. I support capital punishment.

As for Willie Horton, say what you want, it was a legitimate political issue (Al Gore thought so). Was it really smart to let convicted murderers out of prison on furloughs?

Unless we can figure out a way that violent offenders will only prey on the bleeding hearts that want to spring them, violent criminals need to be incarcerated. (That's tongue in cheek, just so you know.)

Posted by: federalist | Dec 11, 2006 4:36:44 PM

Other than confirming your bloodlust you still have not answered the basic question why is there not a proper balance between punishment and mercy? As far as Al Gore he is an imbecile who stands for nothing and is representative of the self serving politicians who have gotten us here in the first place

Posted by: srbreg | Dec 11, 2006 5:11:37 PM

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