PHILADELPHIA – Calling the sentence “unjust, cruel and even irrational” – but saying Congress had tied his hands by requiring mandatory minimum sentences – a federal judge in Utah has sentenced a first-offender marijuana seller to a 55-year, no-parole prison term.

U.S. District Judge Paul G. Cassell, appointed three years ago by President Bush, imposed the sentence Tuesday on Utah rap record producer Weldon H. Angelos, 25, and issued an impassioned 67-page opinion urging the president to commute the sentence to no more than 18 years.

Cassell wrote that the federal sentencing guidelines usually yield “tough but fair” sentences.

In Angelos’ case, however, three gun-possession counts involving a concealed weapon he carried during marijuana sales to an informant triggered mandatory minimums Angelos must serve consecutive to what should have an eight-year term on the drug conviction.

“This case is different,” Cassell wrote. “It involves a first offender who will receive a life sentence for crimes far less serious than those committed by many other offenders – including violent offenders and even a murderer – who have been before me.”

Angelos’ case was so unusual that in July a group of 29 former federal judges and prosecutors – nine from Pennsylvania and New Jersey – filed a “friend of the court” brief urging Cassell to declare mandatory minimums unconstitutional.

Angelos’ attorney, Jerome H. Mooney, called the sentence “obscene” and said he would appeal to the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

Mooney said Angelos, father of a 6-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl, heard the judge’s decision “and looked as if someone had just punched him in the stomach.”

“I know he was guilty of selling marijuana, but the punishment should fit the crime,” Angelos’ wife, Zandrah Angelos, said in a statement. “This doesn’t make any sense.”

Julie Stewart, president of the 35,000-member Families Against Mandatory Minimums, called Angelos’ sentence “an outrageous example of the dangers of mandatory sentencing. Legislators who have never laid eyes on the defendants should not determine their sentences.”

The Angelos case put into high-focus one aspect of federal sentencing law at a time when the constitutionality of the entire federal sentencing scheme is before the Supreme Court.

On Oct. 4, the high court held oral arguments after emergency appeals by prosecutors and the Justice Department. Those arose because the court’s June 24 Blakely v. Washington ruling, invalidating Washington state’s sentencing guidelines, had also doomed the similar federal guidelines.

Angelos, who was arrested in 2002 for selling marijuana to an informant – two half-pounds at $350 each – faced more than 55 years in prison without parole because of the three gun charges, including an accusation that he had a concealed handgun in an ankle holster, even though the gun was never brandished or fired.

In Angelos’ case, for example, the first gun count carried a mandatory five-year prison term, the second a mandatory, consecutive 25 years, and the third another consecutive 25.

John S. Martin Jr., a former federal judge and prosecutor in Manhattan who signed the amicus brief by the 29 judges and prosecutors, said Angelos’ case “cries out that this is somehow wrong. This is not in keeping with our concept of justice.”

U.S. Attorney Paul M. Warner, the prosecutor for Utah, had argued that the mandatory minimums were constitutional and authorized by Congress.

Created in response to sentencing disparities, the federal guidelines were designed to ensure that people of similar backgrounds convicted of the same crime could expect the same sentence in any federal courtroom.

The judge must sentence within the recommended guideline range except in special circumstances such as a prosecutor’s motion for leniency, or extraordinary personal circumstances.

The Sentencing Commission, a federal panel that sets guidelines for federal judges who sentence 63,000 people each year, is working on new guidelines. The Justice Department Wednesday unofficially endorsed an alternative in which minimum sentences would not change but judges would have flexibility to give longer sentences, up to the maximum defined by Congress, the Associated Press reported.

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