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December 24, 2015

Highlighting how Chrismas clemency cheer brings a lump of coal for those left off Prez Obama's list

This Washington Post article, headlined "Obama’s clemency list brings joy to the lucky and anguish to the disappointed," notes the sadness felt by federal prisoners and their families when certain names fail to appear on the latest list of commutations. Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece that gives special attention to the (in)famous case of Weldon Angelos:

The president wants to use his clemency power to undo past injustices, and on Friday, in the largest single-day grant of his presidency, he signed 95 commutations.  They brought joy to families across the country.

“God be the Glory,” said Sharanda Jones, a 48-year-old Texas woman who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a cocaine offense. She was a first-time, nonviolent offender. “I am overjoyed.”

But for thousands of other prisoners, who may also meet the president’s criteria, their exclusion was a hard blow.  “It was a great day for those who won the lottery and one more disappointment for everyone in the pipeline who should be on the list,” said Amy Povah, a former inmate and the founder of the Can-Do Foundation, a clemency advocacy group.

criminal justice reform advocates of an irrationally severe system.  He was sentenced in 2004 to a mandatory 55 years in prison without the possibility of parole after he was arrested for selling marijuana in three separate transactions with a Salt Lake City police informant, while possessing a firearm.  Angelos never used or pulled out the gun, but the informant testified that he saw a gun when he made the buys, and that triggered a statute referred to as “gun stacking,” which forced the judge to give him a long sentence.

Angelos’s case has been widely championed, including by Families Against Mandatory Minimums and conservative billionaire Charles Koch.  Former U.S. District Court judge Paul G. Cassell, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, has called the sentence he imposed on Angelos “unjust, cruel and even irrational.”  Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries, said the failure to commute Angelos’s sentence Friday was “disappointing and devastating for Weldon and his family.”

“Think of anything in your life that you’ve waited for,” Holden said.  “Everything else pales in comparison to this. ​​ It is unclear why Angelos failed to get clemency.  A Justice Department spokeswoman said that officials do not discuss individual clemency petitions. Another official noted that the department is processing them “as thoroughly and expeditiously as we can.”

Each of the four times that the president has announced his commutations has been difficult for Angelos, but this time cut the deepest.  And it’s not because it came around the holidays. It’s because this group of inmates will be released on April 16.  “If I had been given clemency this time,” Angelos, a father of three, said in an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution at Mendota, “I would have been out for my oldest son’s graduation from high school in June.”

When he came in from the track, Angelos called his sister, Lisa.  She had heard he wasn’t on the list, and she was crying.  While talking to her, he looked up and saw Obama on the prison television set making his official announcement at his end-of-year news conference.  “I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach,” he said.

Similar scenes were playing out in other federal prisons, said Angelos’s lawyer, Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and a co-founder of New York University’s Clemency Resource Center.  He represents nine clients who are seeking clemency. “I dreaded the phone ringing,” Osler said in a blog post he called “Sunday Reflection:  The sad call”: “I looked at the screen and it said what I feared it would: ‘Unknown,’ which is how calls from prison always come up. I let it ring once, twice, three times before pressing ‘answer.’ . . . And each time I talked to them about what had happened, how I did not know how they picked the lucky ones.  They told me, in heavy voices, what they would miss: a son’s graduation, the last days of a mother in fading health.  And each time I hung up and sat in silence.”

White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston said last week that Obama, who has granted 184 clemencies, has already commuted the sentences of more individuals than the past five presidents combined.  “We expect that the president will grant more commutations and pardons to deserving individuals in his final year in office,” Eggleston added.

But clemency advocates say that Obama has put himself in a different position than previous presidents. Instead of granting a moment of mercy to an inmate — much like the odds of being struck by lightning — Obama’s Justice Department set out eight specific clemency criteria, including having served at least 10 years, having no significant criminal history prior to conviction and demonstrating good behavior in prison.  And he raised the hopes of thousands who believed they could qualify. “What the president announced was a categorical grant to people who met those eight criteria,” Osler said. “If it’s a categorical grant, we should be seeing consistency.”

I suspect there may well be a cruel irony to the decision not to have (my former pro bono client during his 2255 efforts) Weldon Angelos on the lastest list of commutation: I think Prez Obama and his advisors might reasonably fear that granting clemency to Angelos now could undercut some urgency in Congress to continue pressing forward with statutory sentncing reform. GOP Senator Mike Lee has often mentioned the Angelos case in his advocacy for federal sentencing reform, and the stacking of mandatory minimums that resulted in Angelos' extreme sentence would be fixed in the reform bills that have been slowly moving through Congress.

I suspect Prez Obama is especially eager to see Angelos get relief from a duly enacted law, and I remain hopeful that Angelos will appear on a clemency list before this time next year if Congress in 2016 proves unable to reform the problematic provision that led to Angelos receiving a mandatory 55 years for a few minor marijuana sales. In the meantime, I hope Weldon, his family and all those advocating on his behalf might get a glimmer of comfort from the possibility that Angelos' continued incarceration may actually foster continued congressional reform efforts which would benefit thousands of fellow federal prisoners.

December 24, 2015 at 02:35 PM | Permalink

Comments

I hardly have words to comment on the feelings we experience when loved ones with clemency petitions are passed over. Even so, I know that inmates who were grieving because they had been overlooked were also happy for the "chosen few".

We have thousands of nonviolent inmates serving long sentences that do not fit the crime. We have nonviolent marijuana offenders serving life without parole who will not get any sentencing relief from the current sentencing reform that is being considered.

The promise of sentencing relief for these unfortunate citizens can only be kept by Presidential Commutations. This speaks to justice and fiscal responsibility and we're waiting for the promise to be fulfilled

Posted by: Beth | Dec 25, 2015 12:54:16 AM

To have to be incarcerated for 10 years "before" being considered for clemency, is the real tragedy. Mandatory minimums have first time non-violent offenders locked up worse than dogs at the pound, for 5-10. Does the president have any idea what 5-10 behind bars does to someone? If he did, he might work on letting people out sooner than the 10 yr. mark.

Posted by: kat | Dec 26, 2015 3:28:00 PM

Obumbo is worried about his legacy. He does not want one single human who he has pardoned or let off early, go out and do another crime. Meanwhile he has Gitmo hanging over his head. Read about the Nuremberg Trials folks. That was back when we were the exemplary nation.

Posted by: Beldar | Dec 27, 2015 10:38:57 AM

By the way, I believe your speculation about Weldon Angelo's lack of commutation may well be correct. Weldon does not have a life sentence, although it could have amounted to life. IF statutory sentencing reform is passed, Weldon will be released.

Unfortunately, many believe that this reform will solve the problem for all egregious sentences. This of course, is not the case

Posted by: beth | Dec 27, 2015 1:10:43 PM

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