Former Federal Judge Regrets 55-Year Marijuana Sentence

PHOTO: Paul Cassell, right, a now-retired federal judge in the Utah circuit, talks with "Nightline" co-anchor Byron Pitts about the mandatory minimum case that still haunts him. PlayABC News
WATCH Locked Up for Life on a Nonviolent Drug Bust

Weldon Angelos was just 24 years old when he was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison for three marijuana sales. He is one of the hundreds of thousands of federal prisoners serving decades-long sentences for non-violent crimes, thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing laws created in the 1980s during America’s war on drugs.

As a result, Angelos may not live long enough to experience freedom again. His case has haunted the federal judge that put him there.

"I do think about Angelos,” said Paul Cassell, a now-retired federal judge in the Utah circuit. “I sometimes drive near the prison where he’s held, and I think, ‘Gosh he shouldn’t be there. Certainly not as long as I had to send him there. ... That wasn’t the right thing to do. The system forced me to do it.”

Back in 2002, Angelos was an aspiring music producer and a father of two young boys living in Salt Lake City. Determined to make it big, he founded his own record company, eventually collaborating with big names like Snoop Dogg. But Angelos told ABC News he also started dealing pot on the side.

Federal authorities caught wind of Angelos’s dealings and set up three stings, using a criminal informant to buy about $1,000 worth of marijuana from him. But one critical detail made this case extraordinary -- during the deals, the criminal informant claimed Angelos had a gun in his possession.

The case went to federal court and Angelos was convicted of selling narcotics while in possession of a firearm. These offenses fall under mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and prosecutors treated each of the three marijuana deals as its own individual offense. This is what is called “stacking” the charges, and it means Angelos was facing three prison terms, stacked on top of each other. All in-- 55 years in prison, with no possibility of parole.

"A mandatory minimum is a sentence that says a judge has to impose a particular minimum number of years,” Cassell said. “It ties the judge’s hands… mandatory minimums can be used to send a message, but at some point the message gets lost.”

As many as 210,000 prisoners like Angelos are serving decades behind bars for non-violent crimes. The group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) has complied hundreds of cases of non-violent offenders serving out what they call extreme prison sentences.

“The drug war totally drove the mandatory minimums that we’re still dealing with today” said Julie Stewart, founder of FAMM. “We have escalated punishments to the point that it’s crazy… Why does any non-violent offenders need to spend more than ten years in prison? Even that is a huge amount of time.”

Weldon Angeloss sister Lisa Angelos (center) is shown here with one of Weldons sons, Jessie,(left) and Nightline co-anchor Byron Pitts (right).ABC News
Weldon Angelos's sister Lisa Angelos (center) is shown here with one of Weldon's sons, Jessie,(left) and "Nightline" co-anchor Byron Pitts (right).

Paul Cassell, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, now teaches law at the University of Utah. But he says the Angelos case still weighs on him, which is the reason he agreed to speak to “Nightline” about his ruling, something federal judges rarely do.

When Cassell delivered his ruling in the Angelos case, he was quick to point out how severe the sentence seemed compared to other, violent crimes.

“If he had been an aircraft hijacker, he would have gotten 24 years in prison. If he’s been a terrorist, he would have gotten 20 years in prison. If he was a child rapist, he would have gotten 11 years in prison. And now I’m supposed to give him a 55-year sentence? I mean, that’s just not right,”

“I think that most of the time, our federal justice system succeeds,” Cassell continued. “But there are some cases where it fails and the Angelos case is a prime example of that.”

Keeping offenders like Angelos in prison for virtual life sentences is also a heavy burden on the taxpayer -- Angelos alone will cost an estimated $1.5 million dollars by the time his sentence is through.

“I thought the sentence was utterly unjust to Weldon Angelos, but also unjust to the taxpayer,” Cassell pointed out. “I think it’s just a waste of resources to lock him up for 55 years, I don’t really think anyone believe that’s an appropriate sentence."

Since Utah has no federal prisons, Angelos was sent to serve his time at a prison in California, thousands of miles away from his family.

Lisa Angelos remembers vividly the day when her brother was sentenced.

“The one thing he did say to me was that, we’ll never forget, he said ‘please, please help save my life,’ and I told him for as long as it takes, I will,” she said.

Lisa has made good on that promise, writing petitions, filing appeals, even testifying against the use of mandatory minimums in Congress. She’s partnered up with Families Against Mandatory Minimums to campaign for her brother’s release. But after years of trying, the only way Weldon Angelos will leave prison early is if he receives a commutation from President Obama.

"The President has to say, you have served enough time. It’s time to let you out,” says Julie Stewart, the president of FAMM, “And I’m optimistic that he will do that. Because Weldon’s case is an outrage.”

Lisa Angelos knows getting a presidential commutation is no easy task, but feels like her brother’s case may be strong enough. “I look at it and it doesn’t make sense. It’s like pennies worth of marijuana, how can somebody be doing life for that?”

Weldon Angelos is now 35 years old. He’ll be 78 by the time his 55 years are up.

His two young sons, Anthony and Jesse, are now teenagers, and haven’t seen their father for seven years—the last time they were able to buy a trip out to California.

“Being around them you can feel their heart ache, even though their laughter, and watching them play and do the fun stuff, you can still feel it,” Lisa Angelos said. “Seeing what they have gone through by losing their father, it just emotionally destroys me.”

Nearly every week, the boys talk on the phone with their father. During one such phone call, Weldon Angelos was able to talk to “Nightline” briefly.

“I mean it’s difficult to understand. I thought my sentence was definitely unnecessary,” Angelos said. “A 55-year sentence is not going to do any more than a five or 10 year sentence would have done, except take more of my life.”

Lisa said she will continue to fight for her brother’s freedom.

“To think that he will be in there until he is nearly 80 years old, I can’t give up on him, I just can’t do it,” she said.