Editor’s note: The following is a lightly edited interview with Weldon Angelos, who was recently released from prison after 13 years of a 55-year sentence for selling marijuana while in possession of a firearm. The views expressed below do not necessarily represent Libertas Institute.
Libertas Institute: Can you briefly summarize why you were in prison?
Weldon Angelos: I was in prison for selling marijuana while in possession of a firearm. I sold marijuana three times to a confidential informant, so about $300 worth of marijuana, and there was a firearm either in my possession or in the vicinity. That resulted in a 55 year sentence—five years for the first offense and 25 years for each offense after that, for a total of 55 years.
LI: What was the reason for such a heavy sentence for that type of crime?
WA: I think it was the way the statute was written and was misinterpreted by the Supreme Court. The statute was originally interpreted to be a recidivist provision where someone commits this offense and gets five years for each count, and if you get out and do the same offense again, then it results in a 25 year penalty. So it is basically a recidivist provision. However, in 1993 the Supreme Court interpreted the statute to allow the 25 year sentence to occur on the first conviction.
LI: Had you been convicted of anything before?
WA: I had a minor juvenile misdemeanor count, but I was treated as first time offender in the sentencing guidelines.
LI: What was your reaction when the 55-year sentence was announced?
WA: I was numb at first because I couldn’t get myself to understand or believe that this could happen in our country. Growing up, I saw individuals sentenced for murder get out after serving eight years, and sentences for other offenses receiving way less time. So when my attorney told me 55 years was mandatory, and that the judge had no discretion, I didn’t really believe it.
I was like “okay, I’m hearing what you’re saying, it’s mandatory,” but for some reason I thought there was some way that I could get out of it. Either the higher courts or the judge could find some legal maneuver to get me a just sentence. So I didn’t really understand it until the day I was sentenced and then when the judge explained it from the bench.
I was numb when he said, “I have no choice but to sentence you to 55 years. While the sentence appears to be cruel, unjust, and irrational, I have no choice in the matter because Congress made this mandatory.” That’s when it hit me and then I was sort of numb after that. But, because my judge did call out for a presidential commutation I was able to have some hope through the process.
Weldon with his two sons before being sentenced to 55 years in prison.
LI: Was Congress doing this because they didn’t understand the implications of what they were doing? Do you think it was an unintended consequence?
WA: I think it was an unintended consequence. I don’t think Congress envisioned an offender like me when they created this statute.
LI: If you could speak to that confidential informant who reported you to the police, what would you say to that person?
WA: I wouldn’t really have anything to say. I mean, he did what he felt he had to do. So I really wouldn’t say anything to him. I think this is more of an issue of Congress. I think this is something Congress created and Congress has to deal with, because regardless of what the informant did, if Congress didn’t create the mandatory minimum I would have received a lighter punishment. Or, if the federal system didn’t have so many criminal offenses on the books I probably would have went state and received roughly six months in jail.
LI: You were offered a plea deal if you would have admitted your guilt to the gun charges—a 15 year prison sentence. Looking back, do you regret not taking the plea deal?
WA: Not really. Kind of… It’s hard to take 15 years for one marijuana offense. Obviously I was facing a lot of time, 105 years. But at the time, even 15 years was like a lifetime. I was 22 years old, I had just started a career in the music industry, I had two young children and the sentence seemed like a life sentence to me. So at the time I just couldn’t get myself to accept 15 years. The 15 years was the exchange to plead to one marijuana distribution count and one gun count and at the time I felt that was far too harsh for that conduct.
LI: The judge who sentenced you to prison asked President Obama to commute your sentence, but he never did. There have been a lot of commutations, but the president didn’t do your case. What are your thoughts about that?
WA: I have a number of theories, but it’s just conjecture. I really don’t know why my sentence wasn’t commuted. We filed a petition in 2012 during Obama’s first term and we haven’t seen any action on it since. There were number of cases similar to mine that were commuted so I felt that I was coming up next and we just kept getting passed up and finally when I was about to reach my 15 year mark—which was the plea offer—my prosecutor found a legal maneuver to get me out of prison after I served the 15 year sentence, which is what he offered me initially.
With good time credit I had earned almost two years of good time credit so I served approximately 13 years straight, but with the good time I hit the 15 year mark.
Weldon was in prison for roughly 13 years.
LI: What led that prosecutor to do this on your behalf? Did the prosecutor agree with Judge Cassell that that was too much and he wanted to help you out?
WA: He did. He did agree that the 55 year sentence was too much. He felt that the offer was reasonable and that was the sentence I should have received, which is why he did this. I don’t know why I was not getting clemency. It could have been because my case was high profile. I mean it could be a number of factors. Obviously the high profile nature of the case meant that I could get out and re-offend and make the president look bad. I mean, there are so many different theories. I just really don’t know why my sentence was not commuted.
LI: You said if your case had gone through a state court you might have gotten six months jail. Why was your case pulled into federal court to begin with?
WA: I’m not sure. I suppose it’s because the informant had federal charges pending which is why I believe the case went federal. It could have went through the state system but I’m not really sure who makes that decision. But if it had went state, according to the former U.S. Attorney for Utah, Brett Tolman, he said his calculations were about six months. Judge Cassell said it may have been two years, but either way, it would be a lot less time.
LI: Having gone through the experiences you have, what are your thoughts on the criminal justice system?
WA: It’s definitely broken, for sure. I think we’re sending the wrong message if we incarcerate drug offenders for this long. A 55 year sentence is too long, especially when it’s more than somebody might get for killing somebody. I think that definitely sends the wrong message and makes people lose confidence in the federal system.
LI: Do you think there’s a place for mandatory minimum sentences?
WA: I don’t think there is. If they’re going to have them, they should be reserved for the harshest crimes, such as murder or terrorism. It’s ironic, because a lot of those offenses have no mandatory minimum and a lot of the most serious ones have a guideline sentence, which gives the judge discretion. I think if we’re going to have mandatory minimums, let’s have them where they’re appropriate, with the most severe offenses.
LI: Do you feel that non-violent offenders should be sentenced to prison at all?
WA: I guess it depends on the circumstances, if it’s a first offense, second offense, if they’re a threat to public safety. I think if it was just drug offenders, pure drug offenders, I don’t think prison should be the first choice. I think prison should be the last option. I think that other things should be tried first, and prison is like a last resort.
LI: What are your thoughts on the marijuana laws themselves, seeing that they’ve changed so much since you were convicted? Do you think marijuana should be legal?
WA: Personally, I think it should be left up to the states. If the state wants to legalize it, the state should be able to legalize it. So people could sort of vote with their feet, if they don’t like it they could leave. I definitely think we should go with science, if science supports the medicinal use then we should go with science, obviously.
Weldon and his sister embrace after being reunited following his release.
LI: Can you describe how this sentence has affected your family life over the past decade plus?
WA: It’s been a nightmare. I mean, it’s completely destroyed our lives. My sons especially, because they witnessed everything: the trial, the sentencing, the disappointment from getting passed up on for clemency. They went through everything. It just destroyed us.
Now I’m out and we’re trying to fix that, but it did put us through a lot of hard times. My sons struggled. Sometimes they had no where to live, or were living in a motel.
And my sister, she’s been fighting for me for 13 years. I’m fortunate enough to have such a strong group of supporters and have such a wonderful sister to fight for me. Not everyone has a sister like I have or supporters like I have, and they deserve a second chance as well. We’re just all glad it’s over with.
LI: This sentence didn’t just affect your life, but also many other people’s lives: your kids, your family, your friends. Is that the kind of a feeling you have as well?
WA: It is. These policies affect generations of kids. My kids have missed out on a lot. They could have been in nice colleges if I was able to stay out and work and keep my company together. I could have put my kids through better college. Now we’re kind of starting over from scratch.
LI: Do you have any plans? What do the next few years of your life look like moving forward?
WA: I have a few opportunities. I’m probably going to be advocating for criminal justice reform for the near future. I’m probably going to write about my experiences and I may produce a documentary. A lot of people ask me, “Are you getting back in the music industry?” And the answer is, I do not know. It’s changed so much so I really don’t know what I’m going to do. But for the immediate future, I plan on advocating for comprehensive criminal justice reform, if I can be effective and helpful in that area.