January 2013, Week 2


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Sun, 13 Jan 2013 18:09:43 -0500
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Why Has Obama Pardoned So Few Prisoners?
Sasha Abramsky
This article appeared in the January 28, 2013 edition of
The Nation.
January 9, 2013  

Weldon Angelos Six and a half years ago, I drove out to
Lompoc federal penitentiary in the hills outside Santa
Barbara to interview Weldon Angelos, a young man who had
received the improbable sentence of fifty-five years
without parole for selling marijuana, ostensibly while
carrying a small pistol in an ankle holster.

A rap artist from Salt Lake City and friend to Napoleon
and other eminences of the hip-hop world, Angelos had
been ensnared by an informant in a series of undercover
marijuana purchases that reeked of entrapment. What
might have been a two-bit state pot case became a high-
stakes federal case. When Angelos-who denied carrying a
gun when dealing-refused to enter a guilty plea, the
feds played hardball, piling more indictments onto the
original charge. In December 2003, more than a year
after he had been arrested, Angelos was found guilty on
several counts, though he was acquitted on others.
Because of mandatory minimum statutes linked to the
firearms charges, the presiding judge-a George W. Bush
appointee named Paul Cassell-was left with no discretion
at sentencing. After asking the prosecuting and defense
attorneys to advise him on the constitutionality of the
sentence, a distraught Cassell handed down the fifty-
five-year term, a punishment he called "unjust, cruel
and even irrational." In his opinion, he urged then-
President Bush to pardon the young father of three and
right a clear judicial wrong.

Angelos was 23 when he was arrested. He was in his
mid-20s when I met him. It was such an obvious injustice
that I thought the odds were pretty good he'd be out of
prison by the time he was 30. Surely one or another
president would pardon him or commute his sentence,
either reducing it or allowing him to be released on
time served.

But today Angelos is in his early 30s and fast
approaching his ten-year anniversary behind bars. Bush
didn't pardon him. Neither has President Obama-despite
earlier pleas on Angelos's behalf from several ex-
governors, dozens of ex-federal prosecutors and judges,
and four US attorneys general; despite growing concerns
over mandatory minimum sentences from members of
Congress; despite the pledge by onetime Salt Lake City
mayor and civil rights lawyer Rocky Anderson to "do
anything I can to remedy this unbelievable injustice";
despite The Washington Post and other leading
publications urging clemency; despite the fact that, at
least rhetorically, the Obama administration has moved
away from the sensational, fearmongering tactics of the
drug war, and that drug czar Gil Kerlikowske doesn't
even like to talk about a "war on drugs"; despite the
fact that in late 2012 Obama said the feds had "bigger
fish to fry" than prosecuting marijuana users in states
moving toward legalization; despite the fact that one
state after another has rolled back its most draconian
mandatory minimum sentences for small-time drug users
and dealers.

"He has a family who deserve to see their father at home
with them," wrote Napoleon (Mutah Beale) in a letter to
President Obama urging him to secure Angelos's release.
"But the most important thing is he can be a benefit to
the troubled kids as Weldon is a changed man."

So why hasn't Obama done the right thing? Could it be
that Angelos has just gotten lost in the shuffle?
Possibly-but if that's the reason, there would be
evidence that Obama has used his pardon and commutation
powers wisely in other cases. Unfortunately, that's not

While in the White House, Bill Clinton pardoned well
over 100 people. So did President Bush. To date, Obama
has pardoned less than two dozen and commuted even fewer
sentences. His first commutation wasn't until late
November 2011, when, according to CBS News, he ordered
the release of a woman who had served ten years of a
twenty-two-year sentence for cocaine distribution. CBS
reported that "the latest numbers from the US Pardon
Attorney show that since taking office Obama has denied
872 applications for pardons and 3,104 for commutations
of sentence." A year later, ThinkProgress reported that
the only presidential pardon granted in 2012 was for the
lucky turkey, as part of the Thanksgiving tradition.

A president who talks the talk about more sensible,
nuanced drug policy, and whose oratory frequently
invokes what is best in the American political
imagination, has shown himself remarkably reluctant to
use one of the most important of presidential
prerogatives-the power to right judicial wrongs. "This
president," says Anderson, "has been unbelievably timid
and disinclined to do justice in cases that scream out
for commutation. There's not a lot of moral or political
fortitude in play."

On January 5, The New York Times ran an editorial
calling on the president to exercise his pardon power-
while also pointing out that the Justice Department,
too, "has undermined the process with huge backlogs and
delays, and sometimes views pardons as an affront to
federal efforts to fight crime." The Times also blamed
Ronald Rodgers, the lawyer who runs the Office of the
Pardon Attorney and has obstructed the process, and
argued that his office should be replaced with "a new
bipartisan commission under the White House's aegis,
giving it ample resources and real independence."

In the long run, when it comes to preventing future
unjust sentences like the one given Angelos, Congress
and state legislatures should be the ones to roll back
the excesses of the drug war. And there's no doubt that
Obama, a constitutional law scholar, understands how
much more powerful legislation is than the willful, even
capricious, pardon function of the president. (After
all, Clinton was excoriated for what appeared to be
pardons issued in exchange for campaign and other
contributions. And Bush was heavily criticized for
commuting the prison term of his disgraced adviser Lewis
Libby.) But when there's a massive miscarriage of
justice-as has happened all too often during the forty
years of the "war on drugs"-the president's ability to
pardon or commute sentences is vital.

How does one tell Weldon Angelos's kids that their
father will not only never walk them to school but that
he will never walk their children to school? That if he
survives fifty-five years in prison, he might get out
just in time to walk his great-grandchildren to school.
It's unconscionable that such a sentence should stand.
If Angelos and other drug war prisoners with absurd
sentences remain in prison through Obama's second term,
it will be a stain on the president's legacy.


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