Panamanian military leader Manuel Noriega got less prison time than first-time marijuana dealer Weldon Angelos, his attorneys like to point out.
Noriega, a militaristic dictator, was captured in 1989 by invading U.S. forces and tried in the United States for massive cocaine trafficking. In 1992 he was sentenced to serve 40 years in prison.
Angelos, a young aspiring rap producer and father of two, sold marijuana to make some cash. After selling three 8-ounce bags of pot to an informant, who later testified that Angelos had a gun during two of the sales, Angelos was swept up in what his attorneys say is a minimum-mandatory sentencing system out of control.
Angelos was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison in 2002. There is no parole in the federal system, meaning Angelos could be well over the age of 70 when eligible to be released from prison.
Now the 26-year-old is trying to get one last chance to overturn his sentence by appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case has attracted the support of some of the brightest legal minds in the state and throughout the country.
Salt Lake attorney Jerome Mooney teamed up several years ago with University of Utah law professor Erik Luna, an expert in criminal justice, to appeal for Angelos pro bono. Just recently, Michael Zimmerman, former chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, decided to join in Angelos' defense, partly out of his personal belief that federal sentencing guidelines are out of control.
Zimmerman told the Deseret Morning News the fact that a first-time drug offender can get 55 years in prison is the product of overzealous politicians eager to appear tough on crime.
"No one ever lost an election by campaigning for tougher criminal punishment," Zimmerman said. "Minimum mandatories at the federal level are particularly way out of whack, I think have no penal justification, and are totally PR-driven."
Zimmerman said he feels Angelos has a strong enough case to stand before the Supreme Court. Congress passed the mandatory enhancement of dealing drugs with a firearm as a way to crack down on big-time drug dealers. But small-time offenders like Angelos have become snared in the system.
"Minimum mandatories like this make no sense at all and distort the penal system completely," Zimmerman said, pointing out that had Angelos been convicted in state court, he would have likely received a few years in prison and probation, particularly for a first-time offense.
After handing down the sentence, U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell penned a scathing criticism of the minimum-mandatory laws. Cassell pointed out that someone convicted of raping a 10-year-old child or detonating a bomb on an aircraft get less time in the federal system than Angelos.
But getting the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case is no small task. The brief, which was filed last week, must appeal to the intellect of the justices and their clerks.
Luna said this is a case of federal prosecutors stacking an unreasonable amount of prison time against a defendant to get him to fold to a plea bargain. Originally, federal prosecutors sought 105 years in prison for Angelos, but a judge lowered that. Prosecutors then pressed Angelos to accept a 15-year plea deal, which he rejected.
What Congress is essentially doing, Luna said, is taking away a judge's ability to judge.
"Mandatory minimums make prosecutors the real sentencers in the federal system," Luna said, "and convert trial judges into notaries in black robes."
Recently the Supreme Court requested a reply brief from the U.S. Solicitor General's Office. Such a move does not mean the court will grant a hearing in the case but is an indication that at least some of the justices are interested in the issue.
Luna said under the "rule of four" they must convince at least four of the nine justices to take the case in order for it to be heard. A final decision will be made Sept. 25.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah said it could not comment on the case but referred to pleadings filed before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The government has argued that judges are bound to carry out the will of Congress, which in this case is to battle the dangerous combination of drugs and guns.
Yet several heavy-hitting legal minds disagreed, saying this sentence crossed the line into cruel and unusual punishment. This was detailed in a "friend of the court" brief filed by former U.S. attorneys general Janet Reno, Benjamin Civiletti, Griffin Bell and Nicholas Katzenbach and nearly 160 other ex-Justice Department officials and federal judges.
Last January, the 10th Circuit upheld Angelos' sentence. "In our view, the district court failed to accord proper deference to Congress' decision to severely punish criminals who repeatedly possess firearms in connection with drug-trafficking crimes and erroneously downplayed the seriousness of Angelos' crimes," the 10th Circuit Court opinion said.
The circuit court went on to say there were indications that Angelos was a known gang member and a moderate drug dealer, saying the fact that Angelos was a first-time offender appeared to be more luck than anything else — something Luna takes issue with.
The Angelos defense team indicated it may have some groups waiting in the wings to file friends of the court briefs in the event the case is accepted, but said it could not talk about who they are.
Luna said regardless of one's position on the war on drugs, "the punishment in this case is simply beyond the pale."