Last year, only 3 percent of U.S. drug defendants in federal cases went to trial. Most of the time, defendants plead guilty in plea-bargaining agreements that offer lesser charges and sentences. But defendants who reject plea deals in drug cases serve sentences on average three times as long as those who take deals, according to a new Human Rights Watch report.
Tonight, correspondent Sheila MacVicar takes a hard look at the mandatory minimum sentencing laws at the heart of the issue, and the pressure federal prosecutors exert. Watch her report tonight at 9 p.m. ET, 6 p.m. PT on Al Jazeera America.
Ten years ago, 23-year-old Weldon Angelos had a lot going for him. He was the father of two boys and had a budding career as a music producer in Salt Lake City, working with big-name talent, such as the rapper Snoop Dogg. He was also a small-time marijuana dealer.
“I was just young and dumb, and had a lousy perspective at the time, and needed some guidance,” Angelos told America Tonight, from a federal penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif., almost 10 years into his 55-year sentence. “It was just a big mistake.”
Taking his chances
Angelos, who had no prior criminal record, sold a childhood acquaintance pot three times, for a total value of $350. The friend, it turned out, had been arrested, and was working as a confidential informant.
The assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case offered Angelos a deal: Plead guilty and accept a 17-year sentence, or go to trial and deal with mandatory minimums, strict sentencing requirements laid out mostly by Congress in the 1980s at the height of the war on drugs.
“He said we’d be facing over 100 years if we didn’t accept the plea offer,” Angelos said.
Almost everyone in Angelos’ position takes the plea. In fact, last year, only three percent of U.S. drug defendants in federal cases went to trial, according to a new Human Rights Watch report. The investigation found that federal prosecutors coerce defendants into accepting guilty pleas, by threatening them with lengthy “enhancements” to their sentences if they refuse.
But Angelos took his chances. “Who goes to prison for a hundred years for marijuana offenses?” Angelos said. “I just refused to believe it was possible in America. Especially because you see rapists and murderers do 10 to 15 years in prison. It just didn’t seem like it was possible that that could happen.”
‘Unjust, cruel & irrational’
But in a courtroom, Angelos’ charges came with a heavy load of mandatory minimum sentences. The informant claimed he had seen a handgun in Angelos’ car during one of the sales and an ankle holster on Angelos in another, according to a police report. A search of his house turned up other firearms, all legally owned.
Angelos never used his guns during the deals. But gun possession during a drug crime automatically triggers a higher sentence, and progressively so. The first charge will land a person five years in prison. For every charge after the first, it’s another 25 years.
Prosecutors have discretion over whether to make the presence of a gun part of the sentencing. In Angelos’ case, the prosecutor chose to include it.
When he went to trial in November 2004, Angelos faced more than 100 years in prison on drug and nonviolent gun charges. He was convicted on three counts, and the judge was obliged to sentence Angelos to a staggering 55 years in federal prison.
Weldon Angelos' attorney
When he gave the judgment, Federal Judge Paul Cassal, a conservative Republican, called it “unjust, cruel and irrational,” adding that Angelos faced a much longer term than criminals who committed three aircraft hijackings, three second-degree murders, three kidnappings or three rapes. He called on President George W. Bush to commute the sentence.
“I think that to the prosecution, they usually feel like what they’ve offered is what you should take and if you don’t take it, that they’re going to make an example out of you,” Angelos’ attorney Jerry Mooney said. “Because if they make an example out of you, then they can go around after that and tell other people, you’d better take the deal because look what happened to Angelos.”
In 2012, federal drug offenders convicted at trial received an average sentence of 16 years, Human Rights Watch calculated, compared to five years and four months for those who took a plea bargain.
A broken system
At the heart of the issue are mandatory minimums, according to Jamie Fellner, an advisor with the U.S. office of Human Rights Watch, who published the report. Prosecutors often threaten defendants that they will introduce additional charges or prior convictions, which in a courtroom automatically ups the ante.
“If you were looking at a 10-year mandatory minimum, and you had two priors – and these don’t have to be major offenses in your past, they can be quite small and quite long ago,” Fellner said. “At the prosecutor’s discretion, he files a notice with the court saying you have two priors and now you’re looking at life without parole.”
Mandatory minimums are extremely common in federal sentencing, especially when it comes to drug offenses. Last year, 61 percent of drug offenders sentenced under federal law received a mandatory minimum conviction.
Weldon Angelos' attorney
Mandatory minimums have frustrated federal judges for three decades, and prompted calls for reform across the political divide. In Florida, Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson called them “draconian.” Former Federal Judge Judge John Martin of the Southern District of New York said mandatory minimums are “cruel, unfair, a waste of resources and bad law enforcement policy.” Judge Mark Bennett of Iowa called them “stunningly arbitrary.”
“Virtually everybody involved in the system, I think recognizes that the system is broken,” Mooney said. “The problem is trying to get somebody to fix it.”
The outcry has intensified in the last year, in part driven by budget concerns as the federal prison population continues to swell. When all’s done, the taxpayer will have spent $1.5 million locking up Angelos, and all for $350 of marijuana.
New laws, new loopholes
In a historic speech in August, Attorney General Eric Holder called for “sweeping, systemic changes.” Since then, the Department of Justice instituted a new policy allowing federal prosecutors to remove the drug quantities that trigger even harsher sentences for low-level offenders.
Human Rights Watch contends that it is too soon to tell how prosecutors will carry out the new policies, but also warns that they “contain easily exploited loopholes and do not prohibit prosecutors from pursuing harsh sentences against any defendant who refuses to plead.”
In September, Holder also expressed support for a bi-partisan bill, co-authored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), that would give judges more flexibility when sentencing crimes subject to mandatory minimums.
With his appeals exhausted, all Angelos can hope for now is presidential clemency. It’s a cause his sister Lisa is championing, with support from former governors, U.S. attorneys and judges. “Even good people make mistakes and do stupid things,” Lisa told America Tonight. “I think his mistake really cost him his life and that’s really what we’re hoping to change with clemency from [Barack] Obama.”
Angelos’ eldest son Antony, 6 at the time, was in the courtroom the day his father is sentenced. Without presidential intervention, he will be 61 when his father is released.