At only 25 years old, Utahn Weldon Angelos faces at least 63 years in prison when he is sentenced next month on federal drug and firearms charges. The bulk of that time — 55 years — is required under mandatory-minimum sentences.

But at least 29 former legal officials from across the nation believe such a sentence is unconstitutional and are urging Utah U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell to again say so.

The group of former U.S. attorneys, federal district and appellate court judges, and even one former U.S. attorney general — Nicholas Katzenbach — have filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Angelos' behalf, arguing that such a sentence would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

The brief comes just one month after Cassell declared federal sentencing guidelines unconstitutional under a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling. And now, like then, filings on both issues came at the judge's request.

The mandated sentence, the brief states, is "grossly disproportionate to the offenses that Angelos committed" and "is contrary to the evolving standards of decency which are the hallmark of our civilized society."

Defense attorney Jerome Mooney agrees.

"It's an eye for an eye. It's not two eyes, your arm, foot and a leg for an eye."

Angelos, the founder of the Utah-based rap-label Extravagant Records, is facing the 55-year sentence for carrying a gun in an ankle holster while conducting two separate sales of marijuana, and for keeping firearms at his house. He was convicted of the three counts of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, and 13 additional drug, firearm and money laundering charges, at a December jury trial.

Cassell first raised the question of the constitutionality of mandatory-minimum sentences in the Angelos case in February. He directed Mooney and federal prosecutors to file briefs on the issue prior to sentencing in the case.

In doing so, Cassell noted the potential lopsided nature of congressionally mandated sentencing that requires him to impose a 660-month sentence on Angelos.

"A terrorist who detonates a bomb in a public place intending to kill a bystander will serve a prison sentence of no more than 235 months," the judge wrote. Likewise for murderers and rapists, Cassell said, who under federal sentencing rules will serve only 168 months and 87 months, respectively.

Recognizing the issue as a significant one, Mooney began contacting others for input and soon discovered a groundswell of support for his client.

"There was so much strong feeling about the issue out there that we started discussing the potential of having an amicus brief filed," he said. "There were just a lot of people who felt very, very strongly about the issue."

The import of the filing, Mooney said, is apparent by those whose names appear on it.

"The people who have signed on in the amicus are people who have had to suffer under the burden of a system that they believe is overly onerous and improper," Mooney said.

The brief also argues the proposed sentence violates Angelos' due-process rights and that federal sentencing rules, as enacted by Congress in 1984, violate the separation of powers doctrine. The system unconstitutionally transfers powers traditionally reserved for the judicial branch to the executive branch, the brief states.

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment directly on the Angelos case, but spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch said the office stands by the legality of sentences such as the one contemplated in this case.

"We believe that man- datory-minimum sentences are constitutional, and we will continue to ask the courts, in any cases involving mandatory-minimum sentences, to enforce the statutory language as enunciated by Congress," Rydalch said.

This marks the fourth time since Cassell took the bench two years ago that he has raised matters in notable cases. In addition to the sentencing guidelines issue, he has addressed the constitutional rights of undocumented immigrants and the awards of restitution in criminal cases.

His proactive approach has garnered both praise and criticism from those in the legal community. On Wednesday, Mooney was in the first category.

"I absolutely applaud his willingness to look at things and to not be bound by them just because they've always been done a certain way," Mooney said. "If that were the case, there would never be any progress in the world."


E-mail: awelling@desnews.com