Weldon Angelos hardly could be described as a sympathetic character. He was convicted of 16 counts of federal firearms, drug and money-laundering counts in December 2003. He carried a pistol while selling about $350 worth of marijuana to an undercover informant, although he did not brandish or use the gun during the sale. Under federal law, the gun charge required the sentencing judge to impose a minimum-mandatory sentence. Angelos, now 27, was sentenced to prison for 55 years.
Angelos' attorneys have attempted to have the sentenced overturned on the grounds that the punishment was cruel and unusual. In January, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the sentence, ruling that it reflected Congress' intent to severely punish crimes involving guns and drugs. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
So there's no misunderstanding, Angelos should do time for his crimes. At issue in his case is the federal court sentencing scheme, which ties the hands of federal judges. At sentencing in the Angelos case, U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell handed down the 55-year prison term, noting that he had no choice but to impose a sentence that was "unjust, cruel and irrational."
But the Supreme Court was unmoved, even by a friend-of-the-court brief signed by four former U.S. attorneys general, a former FBI director, former federal judges and former prosecutors. Angelos, a first-time, low-level drug offender, must serve what is effectively a life sentence. He'll serve more time in federal prison than rapists, hijackers and even terrorists.
It means that Angelos will serve just about as much time in prison as Craig Roger Gregerson, 20, who pleaded guilty Monday to the murder and kidnapping of 5-year-old Destiny Norton. Likewise for Ryan William Andrews, for his role in the child abuse death of his daughter, Shelby Andrews.
Short of a presidential pardon, Angelos' options are limited. It is unlikely that Congress would revisit this issue because it does not want to appear soft on crime. Prosecutors hailed the Supreme Court's decision noting it was in line with the will of Congress to improve severe punishments for armed drug trafficking.
If anything, the Angelos case demonstrates the unintended consequences of a sentencing scheme that imposes one-size-fits-all sentences. Justice is better served when the punishment fits the crime. It's better served when judges can weigh the evidence, as well as any aggravating and mitigating factors. Minimum-mandatory sentences unduly tie their hands.