Criminal justice reform group #cut50 held vigils throughout the month of November in front of the White House, pleading with President Obama to do more before he left office on behalf of their loved ones. Thirty-nine-year-old Jason Hernandez, who was granted clemency in 2013, was in attendance at one of the gatherings. The criminal justice system gave Hernandez a life sentence, compared to his supplier’s 12 years, since he converted the drugs in his possession to crack cocaine. According to Hernandez, Obama still had so much more that he needed to do:
To me it feel like a last battle cry. President Obama, if he wants to leave his legacy as far as clemency, he has fewer than 60, 70 days to do that because everyone feels that the door will close as soon as he leaves office.
As Obama’s tenure comes quickly to a close, many share Hernandez’s fears. Others, too, feel as though the president could have done much more. While some wait for change from a government that has not expressed much of an interest to help, others have taken matters into their own hands. There are ways to fight an outdated criminal justice system. Just ask Weldon Angelos.
Angelos quickly became the face of the criminal justice reform movement, particularly regarding the mandatory minimums. The Utah man is a son, brother and father of two. An up-and-coming entrepreneur in the music industry, he had even written and produced songs for an impressive group of musicians, including Snoop Dogg, before a run-in with the law derailed him. Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) explains his sentencing battle:
Between May and June 2002, Salt Lake City police set up a series of controlled buys from Weldon, whom they suspected was a member of the street gang Varrio Loco Town. Police arranged for an acquaintance of Weldon’s to act as a confidential informant (CI), hoping to prove Weldon’s involvement in trafficking large amounts of marijuana. The CI purchased ½ pound of marijuana from Weldon on two separate occasions. According to the CI, a firearm was visible in Weldon’s car during the first buy. During the second controlled buy, the CI alleged that Weldon was wearing an ankle holster holding a firearm. Police searched Weldon’s home in November 2003 and found additional guns, drug paraphernalia and other evidence that officers claimed indicated his involvement in drug trafficking and money laundering.
Weldon was indicted on 20 charges that carried a minimum sentence of 105 years. At trial, the jury convicted Weldon of 13 drug, firearm and money laundering charges, as well as three counts of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Two of the three counts of possession of a firearm resulted from the gun he allegedly carried during the buys with the CI. The third count stemmed from a handgun found in a bag in Weldon’s home. Although one charge was dismissed, and he was acquitted of three others, Weldon was sentenced to a mandatory 55 years in federal prison.
No one was pleased with the 55-year prison sentence, not even the man who was forced to hand it down. Paul G. Cassell, a former George W. Bush-appointed federal prosecutor turned University of Utah law school professor, said that the sentence was “one of the most troubling that [he] ever faced in [his] five years on the federal bench.” He had compared it to “much shorter federal sentences given to repeat child rapists and airplane hijackers.” Cassell wrote a letter to Obama 12 years after the initial conviction.
“I write you as the judge who sentenced Weldon Angelos to a 55-year mandatory minimum prison term for non-violent drug offenses,” he addressed. “It appears to me that Mr. Angelos meets all of the criteria for a commuted sentence.” Cassell cited the requirements listed under Obama’s clemency initiative, unveiled the year before. According to sentencing reform advocates, “hundreds — and potentially thousands — of inmates who meet the Obama administration’s criteria for clemency, including Angelos, are still behind bars.” Among the hundreds commuted around the time of Cassell’s letter, Angelos’ name did not come up. When asked about Angelos, White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine “said the administration does not comment on pending cases.”
A diverse group was already ready to take matters into their own hands. A criminal justice reform panel was held on Capitol Hill in 2014. As libertarian magazine Reason pointed out, representatives showed up from “Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), Right on Crime, the Charles Koch Institute (CKI), the Heritage Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).” This group, composed of nonpartisan organizations on the left and right, worked together for the next couple of years to bring attention to Angelos’ story.
Their efforts were combined with those of Angelos’ sister Lisa, who never stopped fighting for her brother. With the White House’s ignoring of Cassell’s letter and other countless requests to commute Angelos’ sentence, it seemed as though his opportunities for justice were fading. Despite the administration saying that they wanted to work for a fairer justice system, Angelos’ case proved that the executive branch was not going to provide help to everyone who needed it. In the end, Angelos’ justice came from the very last source expected: a federal prosecutor.
A change of heart led to Angelos’ sentence reduction and immediate release in June. The exact details of his release are unclear, as his court records are now sealed, but Angelos made it just in time to see his oldest son graduate high school. “It’s amazing. I just keep hugging them every time I get a chance,” he said. Had Weldon been forced to serve the entirety of his sentence, he would have been in prison until he was 80 years old.
Angelos had a varied group in his corner. The Washington Post reports:
Angelos is one of the nation’s most famous nonviolent drug offenders and became a symbol of what advocates said was the severity and unfairness of mandatory sentences. His case was championed by the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, former FBI director Bill Sessions, conservative billionaire Charles Koch and others. Three years ago, more than 100 former judges and prosecutors, former elected and appointed government officials, and prominent authors, scholars, activists and business leaders signed a letter urging Obama to grant Angelos commutation.
His is a story emblematic of hundreds of others, and overly harsh sentences are an issue that unites a wide range of supporters. In Congress alone, politicians actively reach across the aisle to address criminal justice and sentencing reform. The most popular bipartisan teams are often Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), as well as Sen. Chris Coons (D- Del.) and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). Booker and Paul have teamed up on several occasions, primarily to fight for juvenile justice reform and medical marijuana. They’ve even received praise outside of politics for their efforts. Coons and Tillis have also teamed up on the cause of juvenile justice reform.
Though the White House has touted its desire to promote a fairer criminal justice system, Angelos and the many in similar predicaments have proved that the bulk of change will come from states, organizations, judges, lawyers, representative politicians and family members.
The history of the “war on drugs”
This is part seven of our series “Pardon,” examining the state of nonviolent criminal justice reform as the Obama presidency comes to a close.