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New York Times, Jan. 11, 2006
by Kirk Johnson
DENVER, Jan. 10 - A federal appeals court has upheld a 55-year prison term imposed on a Utah man with no criminal record who was convicted in 2003 of selling several hundred dollars worth of marijuana on three occasions.
The case of the man, Weldon H. Angelos, a record producer from Salt Lake City who was 22 at the time of his crime, has become a benchmark in the debate about sentencing rules and justice. The trial judge in the case complained in issuing the sentence, which was required by federal statutes, that he thought it excessive, and 29 former judges and prosecutors agreed, in a brief filed on Mr. Angelos's behalf.
But a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a decision issued here late Monday, rejected those arguments. The sentence properly reflected the will of Congress, the court said, and was not cruel or unusual punishment. Mr. Angelos was reported by a witness to have been armed with a pistol during two of the drug sales - and requiring stiffer sentences in cases where drugs and violence are linked, the court said, is legitimate social policy.
"Although the district court concluded that Angelos's sentence was disproportionate to his crimes, we disagree," the court said. "In our view, the district court failed to accord proper deference to Congress's decision to severely punish criminals who repeatedly possess firearms in connection with drug-trafficking crimes, and erroneously downplayed the seriousness of Angelos's crimes."
Mr. Angelos's lawyer, Jerome H. Mooney, said the decision would be appealed, either for reconsideration by the full Court of Appeals here in Denver or directly to the United States Supreme Court.
Mr. Angelos's sister, Lisa Angelos, said in a telephone interview from Salt Lake City that she had not yet been able to speak with her brother, who is serving his sentence at a federal prison in Lompoc, Calif.
"This was all of our hopes," Ms. Angelos said of the appeal.
The appeals panel did conclude that the police, in searching Mr. Angelos's home, had exceeded the limits of a search warrant as they looked for the source of a strong marijuana smell. But the evidence the officers found in following their noses, the court said, had not materially influenced the outcome.
The court also said that Mr. Angelos's lack of a criminal record appeared to be more about luck in not getting caught than any indication of innocence.
"The evidence presented by the government at trial clearly established that Angelos was a known gang member who had long used and sold illicit drugs," the court said. "In addition, the government's evidence established that Angelos possessed and used a number of firearms, some stolen, to facilitate his drug-dealing activities."
But Mr. Mooney, the defense lawyer, said he thought Mr. Angelos was a victim of politics and of courts that he called too willing to bend to political winds.
"How deferential to Congress should they be on these issues?" he said. "Courts are uncertain and are erring on the side of being more conservative than I think they ought to be."