Pubdate: Thu, 24 Dec 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Sari Horwitz


At 9:10 a.m. Friday, the intercom blared at the federal prison here 
as Weldon Angelos walked the track on this sprawling campus of drab 
gray buildings in California's Central Valley.

The booming voice of a prison official called an inmate to the main 
office. About 25 minutes later, the official came on the intercom 
again, summoning another prisoner.

Angelos knew exactly what was happening. The prisoners had heard a 
rumor the night before that President Obama might grant early release 
to certain drug offenders before he left Washington for the holidays. 
Angelos was excited, anxious. This was it. The lucky inmates on 
Obama's list were being called inside to take phone calls from their 
attorneys, who would tell them the good news.

After the two inmates were called, the minutes ticked past 30, then 
45, and the intercom remained silent.

"I felt sick," said Angelos, 36, who is serving a 55-year sentence 
for selling about $1,000 worth of marijuana. "It was devastating."

And for Angelos and his supporters, that is the cruelty of the 
clemency process set up by the Obama administration to give relief to 
drug offenders who received harsh sentences over the past couple of 
decades in the nation's war on drugs. The president wants to use his 
clemency power to undo past injustices, and on Friday, in the largest 
single-day grant of his presidency, he signed 95 commutations.

They brought joy to families across the country.

"God be the glory," said Sharanda Jones, a 48-year-old Texas woman 
who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a cocaine 
offense. She was a firsttime, nonviolent offender. "I am overjoyed."

But for thousands of other prisoners, who may also meet the 
president's criteria, their exclusion was a hard blow.

"It was a great day for those who won the lottery and one more 
disappointment for everyone in the pipeline who should be on the 
list," said Amy Povah, a former inmate and the founder of the Can-Do 
Foundation, a clemency advocacy group.

Feeling 'punched' in the gut

Angelos, the son of a Greek immigrant, is one of the country's more 
famous prisoners - a symbol for some criminal justice reform 
advocates of an irrationally severe system. He was sentenced in 2004 
to a mandatory 55 years in prison without the possibility of parole 
after he was arrested for selling marijuana in three separate 
transactions with a Salt Lake City police informant, while possessing 
a firearm. Angelos never used or pulled out the gun, but the 
informant testified that he saw a gun when he made the buys, and that 
triggered a statute referred to as "gun stacking," which forced the 
judge to give him a long sentence.

Angelos's case has been widely championed, including by Families 
Against Mandatory Minimums and conservative billionaire Charles Koch.

Former U.S. District Court judge Paul G. Cassell, who was appointed 
by President George W. Bush, has called the sentence he imposed on 
Angelos "unjust, cruel and even irrational."

Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president of Koch 
Industries, said the failure to commute Angelos's sentence Friday was 
"disappointing and devastating for Weldon and his family."

"Think of anything in your life that you've waited for," Holden said. 
"Everything else pales in comparison to this."

It is unclear why Angelos failed to get clemency. A Justice 
Department spokeswoman said that offi-cials do not discuss individual 
clemency petitions. Another official noted that the department is 
processing them "as thoroughly and expeditiously as we can."

Each of the four times that the president has announced his 
commutations has been difficult for Angelos, but this time cut the 
deepest. And it's not because it came around the holidays.

It's because this group of inmates will be released on April 16.

"If I had been given clemency this time," Angelos, a father of three, 
said in an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution at 
Mendota, "I would have been out for my oldest son's graduation from 
high school in June."

When he came in from the track, Angelos called his sister, Lisa. She 
had heard he wasn't on the list, and she was crying. While talking to 
her, he looked up and saw Obama on the prison television set making 
his official announcement at his end-of-year news conference.

"I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach," he said.

Clemency clinic

Similar scenes were playing out in other federal prisons, said 
Angelos's lawyer, Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of 
St. Thomas in Minnesota and a co-founder of New York University's 
Clemency Resource Center. He represents nine clients who are seeking clemency.

"I dreaded the phone ringing," Osler said in a blog post he called 
"Sunday Reflection: The sad call": "I looked at the screen and it 
said what I feared it would: 'Unknown,' which is how calls from 
prison always come up. I let it ring once, twice, three times before 
pressing 'answer.' . . . And each time I talked to them about what 
had happened, how I did not know how they picked the lucky ones. They 
told me, in heavy voices, what they would miss: a son's graduation, 
the last days of a mother in fading health. And each time I hung up 
and sat in silence."

White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston said last week that Obama, who 
has granted 184 clemencies, has already commuted the sentences of 
more individuals uals than the past five presidents combined. "We 
expect that the president will grant more commutations and pardons to 
deserving individuals in his final year in office," Eggleston added.

But clemency advocates say that Obama has put himself in a different 
position than previous presidents. Instead of granting a moment of 
mercy to an inmate - much like the odds of being struck by lightning 
- - Obama's Justice Department set out eight specific clemency 
criteria, including having served at least 10 years, having no 
significant criminal history prior to conviction and demonstrating 
good behavior in prison. And he raised the hopes of thousands who 
thought they could qualify.

"What the president announced was a categorical grant to people who 
met those eight criteria," Osler said. "If it's a categorical grant, 
we should be seeing consistency."

A better comparison, he said, would be former president Gerald Ford, 
who created a special commission, set out specific criteria and 
granted more than 14,000 clemencies in one year to people who had 
either deserted the Army or failed to show up for the draft during 
the Vietnam War.

Angelos, himself, is somewhat of an expert on clemency: He knows all 
about the intricacies of the process and the names of the key 
players. He cites the latest comments by Deputy Attorney General 
Sally Quillian Yates and notes the date that U.S. Senate sentencing 
reform legislation made it out of committee.

He even runs a "clemency clinic" Monday through Friday nights in the 
prison library to help other inmates prepare their petitions. He 
advised Alex Contreras, who is in prison on the same drug and gun 
charges (except it was crack instead of marijuana). Contreras filed 
for clemency in May. To strengthen his petition, Contreras's lawyer 
cited Angelos's severe sentence and noted that the judge on Angelos's 
case called it an injustice.

On Friday, Contreras was on Obama's list.

Angelos and Contreras met up that night in the library to say 
goodbye; Contreras will be moved to a halfway house before going home.

"I was happy for him," Angelos said, tears filling his eyes.

Christmas bags

Angelos's two sons came to visit him twice this fall. Anthony, now 
18, was 6 when his father was sent to prison. Jesse was 4. He hadn't 
seen them for eight years because they live near Salt Lake City with 
their mother and couldn't afford to travel to California.

In October, Koch Industries' Holden paid to fly them and Angelos's 
sister to see him. It was awkward at first. The little boys Angelos 
last saw now towered over their father.

"It didn't feel real," he said. "It felt like a dream."

Holden flew them back again a few weeks ago for a holiday visit, and 
this time the conversation came more easily, and they laughed and 
joked. Angelos told them to focus on school, to not cheat on their 
girlfriends - and that maybe this would be the last time they would 
have to visit him in prison.

"I'm trying to keep my sons positive and hopeful," Angelos said. His 
petition has been pending before the Obama administration for four years.

His sons are fascinated by Angelos's career in the music industry. A 
former rapper, Angelos produced songs with Snoop Dogg. He is close to 
the rapper Napoleon, who used to be a member of Tupac Shakur's group, 
Outlawz. Napoleon, as well as politicians, scholars, artists and 
other musicians, signed a 16-page letter of support for Angelos that 
was sent to Obama.

"Maybe I just need to get Jay Z and then Obama will do it," Angelos 
joked in a moment of levity, noting that Jay Z and Beyonce were at 
Obama's inauguration.

As with all federal inmates, Angelos's sons aren't allowed to give 
their father Christmas presents. They can send him cards.

Christmas is a dreary time in prison. No trees with the trimmings are 
allowed in areas where there are inmates. Prison guards distribute 
plastic "Christmas bags" filled with little gifts, a corrections officer said.

Angelos got his last week. Inside were "bags of chips, popcorn, 
candy, beef jerky, Pop Tarts, a Rice Krispie Treat," Angelos said. "I 
ate everything in two days."

Christmas, he said, "used to be tough. But now, sad to say, it's just 
like another day."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom