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55 Years Behind Bars: Why Mandatory Minimums Need Reform

October 1, 2013 06:05:00 am
Comments (11)

As Congress explores reforming federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, it is important to consider the experiences of families impacted by these punishments.

My family has had its own crash course in these inflexible sentencing rules, as I recently testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

My brother, Weldon Angelos, age 34, is currently serving a mandatory minimum of 55 years in federal prison without parole, despite never committing or even threatening an act of violence.

Weldon and I were very close growing up. After our parents separated, Weldon became the backbone of our family unit.

He also developed into a very talented musician and was on his way to becoming a superstar in the recording industry. He had established a record label and wrote and recorded songs with artists like Snoop Dogg.

Unfortunately, he also used and sold marijuana.

In 2002, an individual later identified as a confidential police informant bought a total of $1,000 worth of marijuana from my brother on three occasions. The informant told Salt Lake City police that my brother had a gun during two of these sales.  He saw one in his car and claimed he saw a gun in an ankle holster on another occasion. When police searched my brother’s house, they found two guns stored in a locked safe, and one gun in a locked briefcase.

Under federal law, one count of possessing a gun “in furtherance” of a drug crime adds a mandatory prison term of five years to the underlying sentence. Every count after the first adds another 25 years. In my brother’s case, having a gun in his car, in an ankle holster, and in his home were considered three separate offenses “in furtherance” of his drug sales. Thus, after being convicted of possessing a gun during the two sales and in his home, my brother received a sentence of 55 years (5+25+25) without parole in federal prison.

My brother deserved to be punished, but thanks to mandatory minimum laws, the judge had no discretion to avoid such an excessive sentence. The sentence applied even though Weldon had never been in trouble with the law before and had a young family and a promising career.

At the sentencing, federal Judge Paul Cassell, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, said my brother deserved a stiff sentence — 8 to 10 years, based on the sentencing guidelines — but thought 55 years was absurd. Judge Cassell called Weldon’s punishment “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.” He said that repeat child rapists and airplane hijackers get much shorter sentences.

Editor’s note: Judge Cassell left the bench in 2007 to become a law professor and victims’ rights advocate in Utah.

Weldon has been serving his sentence in Southern California, far from his family. His relationship with his children’s mother has not survived his incarceration.

His boys, who were 5 and 6 when he was sentenced, are now teenagers growing up without their father. Weldon talks with them every day, and I do everything I can to let them know that their father still loves and supports them, but no one in my family can fill Weldon’s shoes or give them what only a father can give them.

Weldon knows that it is his fault that he got into trouble, and he has to live with that pain and guilt.

But 55 years for selling marijuana, when no one was hurt or even threatened, is an absurd punishment. Federal mandatory minimum sentences for gun offenses can and do send people away for decades, even if the gun owner has a right to own the gun and never uses it to threaten or harm anyone. The laws fail to recognize that not everyone who owns or carries a gun is a violent criminal or drug kingpin.

At the Senate hearing earlier this month, former federal prosecutor Brett Tolman, also from Utah, explained how mandatory minimum sentencing laws create such unjust results.

Speaking about my brother’s case, Tolman said that prosecutors could have arrested Weldon after the first drug sale. Instead, they waited to arrest and charge him so that they could stack the mandatory gun enhancements to drive his sentence as high as they did.

Tolman said that the culture of many prosecutors’ offices rewards prosecutors who secure long sentences.

Where in this culture is the incentive to do justice?

At sentencing, judges should be able to consider whether a defendant actually uses or threatens to use a gun. Because mandatory minimum sentencing laws prevent judges from considering such facts, Congress should reform these laws immediately.


Lisa Angelos is the sister of Weldon Angelos, a federal prisoner serving 55 years in prison under federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. She lives in Sandy, Utah.

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Posted by Miss
Wednesday, November 06, 2013 11:27

Prison is just like Walmart. A big business. Most prisons are now privately owned and they must be kept ninety percent filled in order for the prison owners to make money. Even conservative Pat Robinson has spoken out on the injustice of the sentences handed ou in most non-violent crimes. Tavis Smiley and an ex-prisoner who now has a ministry has started a group to help this fight also. I hope all who are caught up in this madness will have your loveones safely home very soon.

Posted by anna montecino
Monday, October 28, 2013 10:48

I believe my daughter was unjustifyed because my daughter has never been introuble with the law before and there case was based all on hear say from other witness they said they found two guns but never ask if they were hers or who’s were they now they gave my daughter 14 years federal prison she has 5 children whom are not going to know there mother for it is a shame I have been trying to get someone to help me with her case to lessen it but no luck.

Posted by Heather
Friday, October 25, 2013 08:41

Keep it up Lisa. I know how hard it is to feel helpless (and so angry) in this situation and that the only thing you can do is fight the injustice of our own government through activism and telling your story. Keep it up. Stay strong. The tide is turning. Your brother will get out soon and you will have made a difference.

Posted by Sue
Friday, October 25, 2013 07:48

This is so wrong, but when the feds get in the go for all they can get. If you don’t rat you will serve the max and they take into consederation all the lies that co-defendents tell to lessen their sentences. I have contacted my representatives and pray that these unjust laws can be changed, to the benefit of everyone involved.

Posted by Peter Danger
Friday, October 11, 2013 10:40

“The Rick Wershe Blog
650 Life Law vs Current Law
January 14, 2013 at 7:59 PM
Before anyone can fully understand Rick Wershe’s case, they must first understand the original law he was sentenced under, and what the reformation of that law means for his possibilities of parole.

In 1973, the 650 Lifer Law was signed into law in the State of Michigan. This law stated that anyone found in possession of 650 or more grams of a schedule 1 controlled substance, as defined by State of Michigan, is to be given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In 1998, the 650 Lifer Law went under reformation. It now pertains to individuals found in possession of 1,000 or more grams of a schedule 1 controlled substance, and instead of being a mandatory life sentence, the law now has a punishment of “life or any term of years”. What this reformation did is give the parole board jurisdiction of 650 Lifer Law cases after the defendant has served a certain amount of years. In HB 4920, which was passed by Michigan’s 95th Legislature, the possibilities of parole for drug offenders who have been given life sentences is defined. Subsection (7) states that “A prisoner sentenced to imprisonment for life, other than a prisoner described in subsection (6), is subject to the jurisdiction of the parole board and may be placed on parole according to the conditions prescribed in subsection (8) if he or she meets the following criteria:”. Rick meets the criteria of (7)©, which states, “Except as provided in subsection (12), the prisoner has served 17-1/2 calendar years of the sentence for violating, or attempting or conspiring to violate, section 7401(2)(a)(i) of the public health code, 1978 PA 368, MCL 333.7401, and does not have another conviction for a serious crime.”

Subsection (12), in short, states that an individual who has cooperated with law enforcement in eligible 2-1/2 years earlier than the time provided in subdivision (7)(b), and (7)©, which may pertain to Rick’s case because of his cooperation with authorities.

Subsection (6), in short, states the crimes for which a life sentence has been given, that are NOT eligible for parole after a certain number of years, none of which pertain to Rick’s case.

Hundreds of inmates have been released as a result of the change in drug laws, however, Rick has not been as fortunate. Some of these individuals, who will be discussed in greater detail at a later date, have had cases with much greater amounts of drugs, and have not cooperated with law enforcement, but have still managed to be paroled by the same board that has denied Rick time and time again. Because of this, many questions have been raised as to why Rick is still in custody after 25 years.

(On 1/13/13 I spoke with Rick on the phone. During our brief conversation I asked if he had a message he would like me to add to this first blog entry. He wants everyone to know he is happy that it his involvement with the police has finally been made public, and that the truth is finally out there for everyone to see.)"


Posted by Mary Topness
Wednesday, October 09, 2013 04:48

This is insane!!!!! The war on drugs is a total failure and has been going on for 42 years, millions have been arrested and it has cost more than a trillion dollars. This guy deserves some punishment— but NOT 55 years. I’ll bet he needs TREATMENT. Most that go to prison will someday get out— by keeping them in for so long all you have done is make them better criminals. And then they are back in society—-DUMB. The whole system needs a complete make over. Murders and rapist serve less time, crazy.

Posted by Angela
Thursday, October 03, 2013 04:21

It’s a shame that this type of punishment is still allowed in America today. The sad part is that the majority of us don’t get involved until it happens to us personally. I can relate very closely to your story. What makes this situation even worse is that very few prisoners are ever even considered for a pardon, more less granted one. Once the feds get involved in a case, you don’t stand a chance. They are convicting people with no evidence, very little evidence and based on the strength of testimony from other inmates who will say anything they are asked to in order to reduce their sentences. When it comes to the feds, there is no justice.

Posted by Lauren
Tuesday, October 01, 2013 09:39

Mandatory minimum sentences are only causing turmoil in America. They are unfair and unjust and leave a judge with no room to make any decisions. Mandatory minimums in many cases only cause unnecessary punishments that do not fit the crime. The entire point of the court system is making sure the punishment fits the crime and that no one is being treated unfairly. Mandatory minimums make it hard for a judge to make a fair, unbiased decision on a punishment. After being sentenced for such a long time it would be hard for anyone to have a successful life, including a career, afterwards. A judge should have the power to make decisions based on the crime that was committed and the severity of said crime without imposed restrictions that only make the judicial process much harder.

Posted by The absuridity of injustice
Tuesday, October 01, 2013 04:29

That’s what they want is to send people to jail for as long as possible – even when the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. What I find just as appalling as this story is fact that no one is doing anything about it.

Posted by Llidy
Tuesday, October 01, 2013 02:54

I agree with you. I’ve lived this too, with a son. The Federal prison sentences are excessive. In the state prision, one person receives less years for a murder case in the federal prision, even if there was no violence. They should change this. The federal government is in bankrupt, but remain so until sentencing prisoners continue to maintain high and also mantain their families.

Posted by David black
Tuesday, October 01, 2013 10:47

I just got out of federal prison, 2years ,tax evasion, I was a state atty. ,I was shocked at the federal sentences,compared to the state , I rep. Several 1000 pound weed cases, very little jail time most just probation in 10 different states. The fed. System is very unfair , I don’t know where to start to help the injustice.

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