Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Case for Clemency against "Irrational" Justice

By Kwane NewtonPublished April 15, 2016

The case of Weldon Angelos, a man who may spend the rest of his adult life in prison for a minor marijuana offense, represents the unjust outcomes that can arise from a dense and Byzantine legal code. The role of the President to step in when the law fails, especially in a period of mass incarceration, is stronger now than ever before.

    In the fall of 2004, 24 year-old Weldon Angelos was tried and convicted for three small sales of marijuana, worth $350 each.  By the time Angelos finishes serving his sentence for these offences, he will be nearly 80 years old.  At first glimpse such a judgement could seem like the result of some sort of foul play, perhaps the result of a botched legal defense or the wrath of an especially vengeful judge, but the reality is sadly the opposite.  Due to various loopholes in the law that converged in Angelos' trial, he will spend 55 years in prison for a crime that generally mandates a sentence nowhere near the five decades he will have to serve, and there is little the dismayed judge in his case can do about it. While what happened in Angelos' case wasn't the norm, the validity of his sentence in the eyes of the law highlights a fatal flaw in America's judicial system, namely, a lack of reliable remedies to correct the injustices that can occur under the inflexible Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

    The continuous opposition to Angelos' incarceration by various prestigious entities in the legal field helps put the severity of this flaw into perspective, especially considering that one of their most outspoken voices is the very judge who handed down the sentence over a decade ago.  Paul Cassell, the federal judge that ruled in the case and a prominent advocate for victims' rights, has spoken out against the fact that the guidelines could force him to deliver such a harsh punishment for an offence that, under typical circumstances, would carry a sentence of 2 years. The essential difference between Angelos' case and the ones that Cassell refers to, however, lies in a clause of 18 U.S. Code 924, in which the mere possession of a firearm during the commission of a drug trafficking offense requires "a term of imprisonment of not less than 25 years," and can be applied to each instance of possession after the first (which in Weldon's case, carried a 5 year sentence.)

    The sense in this law can perhaps be seen in the context of punishing dangerous traffickers who repeatedly use or threaten violence during drug deals, but these concerns simply didn't apply to Angelos, as he didn't have a prior criminal record and never brandished or used his weapons during his interaction with the informant that implicated him during his investigation.  In short, the 55 years that Angelos was charged with are derived from two instances of him selling marijuana while also happening to have a gun underneath his clothing, with a third charge coming from the discovery of guns that Angelos owned and kept within his own home during a search that he consented to.  The improper application of a law that was, by a reasonable interpretation, intended to have been used against violent armed offenders has led Judge Cassell to call the mandatory sentence "cruel, unjust, and irrational."

    Cassell has submitted both an amicus brief and a 67 page appeal for clemency to President Bush, along with hundreds of high ranking members of the justice community including former U.S. Attorneys, former Circuit Court and District Court judges, former State Attorneys General, and even a former Director of the FBI who have done the same in both President Bush and President Obama's administrations, but to no effect.  President Obama has been understandably cautious when granting clemency, as the fear of "besmirch[ing]" the process by using the power too often could easily be misconstrued by his political opponents, but if he wishes to more fully commit to his goal of combating overly-punitive drug sentences, Angelos' sentence would be a good place to start.  When a relatively small-time, non-violent offender can have their punishment elevated past the point of an "aircraft hijacker" or even a "second degree murderer," justice has gone astray, and the President can and should use his constitutionally granted power more proactively to both offer much-needed relief to those with no alternatives and to preserve the integrity of our justice system by keeping our laws fair.