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September 15, 2008 -- Salt Lake Tribune (UT)

Utah Record Producer Wants 55-Year Firearms Sentence Cut

By Pamela Manson

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

A Utah record producer sentenced to 55 years in prison for carrying a gun while dealing pot on Monday asked for a sentence reduction.

Weldon Angelos argues that the lengthy term violates his Second Amendment right to bear arms.

In a petition filed in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, attorneys for Angelos also argue that the minimum mandatory sentence is unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

The petition contends that the sentence is excessive in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling concerning gun possession for self-defense and "society's evolving standards that are growing ever more tolerant of the type of marijuana use and sales at the heart of the criminal allegations lodged against Angelos."

The filing is the latest challenge in the Angelos case, which ignited a nationwide debate over mandatory minimum sentences.

Even before Angelos was sentenced in November 2004, a group of 29 federal judges and prosecutors filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking then-U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell to refuse to impose the required punishment and declare mandatory sentences unconstitutional.

The U.S. Attorney's Office, which prosecuted the case, has been just as adamant that minimum mandatory sentences -- which were put into law by Congress to battle certain types of offenses, including gun crimes -- are constitutional and appropriate.

Cassell, now a University of Utah law professor, said he had to abide by Congress' wishes and reluctantly imposed the minimum 55-year term. He described the sentence as "unjust, cruel and even irrational," and recommended that the president commute it.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the sentence, and the Supreme Court declined in 2006 to review the case.

Angelos, now 29, has two young children and founded Extravagant Records, which produces rap and hip hop. He is serving his sentence at a federal prison in Lompoc, Calif.

There is no parole in the federal justice system, only time off for good behavior. Angelos' projected release date is Nov. 18, 2051, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.

A federal jury convicted Angelos in December 2003 of 16 counts of drug trafficking, weapons possession and money laundering. By law, he was required to spend at least 55 years behind bars for three convictions of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime -- the gun convictions carry a mandatory five years for the first count and 25 years for each subsequent count, to be served consecutively.

Angelos had a clean record before his convictions except for a minor nonviolent juvenile offense, according to court records. His attorneys say he originally was charged with only one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, but after he refused a plea deal with a 15-year sentence, prosecutors asked a grand jury to return an indictment with additional charges.

Briefs supporting Angelos say he never showed or used a weapon, but either had it in an ankle holster or in his Salt Lake City apartment while selling several hundred dollars worth of marijuana. Angelos has testified that the gun was only for his own protection.

Angelos' case is now being handled by U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell. In addition to Monday's petition, attorneys have another pending request for resentencing that was filed late last year.

In that request, the lawyers say prosecutors were vindictive in seeking such a harsh penalty for a first-time offender and the performance of Angelos' attorney at trial and in pleas negotiations was deficient.

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