LAST WEEK, Utah federal judge Paul G. Cassell sentenced a man who beat an elderly woman to death with a log to 22 years. A few hours later, Cassell sentenced a 25-year-old first-time drug offender to 55 years.
If you think Cassell liked sentencing a small-change drug dealer to more time than a violent killer, guess again. The judge had no choice. Federal law demanded the sentence, despite Cassell's pointed questioning if there was a "rational basis" for sentencing Weldon H. Angelos, the father of two young children, to more time than he could sentence a hijacker, murder or rapist.
Blame federal mandatory minimum sentencing rules. A jury found Angelos guilty on three separate charges of possessing a firearm while he sold a half- pound of marijuana for $350. The first charge of possessing a gun during a drug transaction brought a five-year sentence -- the second two, 25 years each. That adds up to 55 years, so even if Angelos was found guilty of selling $1,050 of drugs, Cassell had to follow the rules and sentence Angelos to 55 years on the gun charges. (The judge, however, did use a recent federal ruling as grounds for reducing the sentence for the drug-selling crimes to one day.)
Cassell did the right thing in imposing the draconian sentence. If he ignored federal law, he'd be placing himself above it.
Instead Cassell sentenced Angelos as the law directed, even as he righteously hectored Congress to rewrite federal drug laws so that first-time offenders don't serve more time than dangerous career criminals. The judge also urged Angelos' attorney, Jerome Moody, to appeal the sentence and, if appeals fail, seek a presidential commutation.
While civil-rights advocates across America protested the sentence, the Utah U.S. attorney's office defended the system. To prosecutors, Angelos is no Boy Scout. Officials found some 26 empty duffel bags with marijuana residue. Local feds believed Angelos was a big drug dealer, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lund told me, and associated with a violent street gang.
Let me say this: Angelos never was a good poster boy for the movement to humanize draconian federal drug laws. Angelos turned down a plea bargain sentence of 16 years. He is considered a first-time offender only because a juvenile gun conviction was expunged. And even if Angelos didn't wave his gun in people's faces, he nonetheless brought a gun with him during the transactions.
The reason Angelos has become a national cause célèbre isn't Angelos, but Cassell. There are more egregious examples of first-time offenders being sentenced to decades for petty dealing, but they didn't come before a judge vocally opposed to the heavy-handed nature of federal drug sentencing.
That said, it simply doesn't make sense that federal sentences often are tougher on small-time drug offenders than violent criminals. But it happens all the time.
Just last week, the Albuquerque Journal reported on a case in which a federal judge claimed that he sentenced a man who killed his own mother to 6 1/2 years after he sentenced a 29-year-old mother of three to life without parole because she had a gun while dealing marijuana.
It's not right. Congress passed tough federal drug laws because Washington wanted harsh time for drug kingpins. But too often, prosecutors cut deals that reduce sentences for drug ringleaders who inform on other offenders, then show no mercy on low- and midlevel offenders. Often, it's the worst criminals who figure out how to game the system -- according to Angelos' attorney, the informant who testified against Angelos had a "bad" rap sheet.
In effect, Angelos is set to spend an extra 30 years in prison -- assuming he is let out for good behavior -- simply because he wouldn't agree to a plea bargain with the U.S. Attorney's office.
Note that at one point, prosecutors agreed justice would be served if Angelos served 16 years. Now they are defending a sentence that far outstrips the time many killers serve.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, based in Washington, estimates that the cost of jailing Angelos will be $1.3 million.
The cost to Angelos: Life behind bars until he is well into his twilight years. His sister told the Salt Lake Tribune that 55 years will be "worse than a death in the family" as the terms will present "constant torture."
Cassell himself called the sentence "unjust, cruel and even irrational." Too bad that in Washington, the federal sentencing system is considered something entirely different: highly popular.
E-mail Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org.