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Twenty-nine prominent former federal judges and attorneys have signed an amicus curiae brief urging a Utah federal judge to depart from a mandatory minimum sentence against a defendant charged with possession of firearms and various drug charges. The list of impressive names — from Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, former U.S. attorney general under Lyndon B. Johnson, to former Third Circuit Chief Judge John Gibbons — underscores the intensity of the ongoing debate over mandatory minimum sentences. John Martin Jr., a former U.S. attorney and federal district judge in New York, played an integral role in the creation of the brief by seeking out other attorneys and asking them to sign it. “I thought this was going to be an important case in mandatory minimums,” Martin said. “They are a very bad idea; anybody who’s ever imposed a sentence knows that.” The defendant, Weldon Angelos, faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 55 years for carrying a firearm while selling marijuana twice, but not using or displaying it, and for having firearms in his home, which were discovered after Angelos consented to having his home searched. He faces 16 charges in all, with the other 13 amounting to about eight years in jail. U.S. v. Angelos, 02-CR-708 (D. Utah 2004). Harry Rimm, a co-author of the amicus brief along with Jeffrey Sklaroff, both of the New York office of Greenberg Traurig, said that the brief doesn’t oppose mandatory minimum sentences, “but there is a real and legitimate concern when they’re imposed for multiple counts and result in a lengthy and consecutive cumulative sentence, like in this case. � What we’re saying is the mandatory minimums may not be an Eighth Amendment violation on its face, but in situations like this, it is.” Angelos is 24, so a minimum sentence of 63 years “would appear to effectively be a life sentence,” said U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell of Utah in a request for additional briefing from the defense counsel and prosecution as to whether Angelos’ sentence is constitutional. Cassell did not return calls seeking comment. The amicus brief argues that the mandatory minimum sentence that Angelos faces violates the Eighth Amendment for cruel and unusual punishment, as well as due process, the separation of powers doctrine and the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Angelos’ sentence is unconstitutional because “it is grossly disproportionate to the offenses that Angelos committed and it is contrary to the evolving standards of decency which are the hallmark of our civilized society,” the brief states. The signers of the brief also include former New Jersey U.S. Attorney Robert Cleary; former federal judges William Norris and Nathaniel Jones; and Robert Cindrich, who was a U.S. attorney and federal district judge. Cindrich and Martin both stepped down from the bench, in Pittsburgh and New York, respectively. A major concern in their decisions was mandatory minimum sentences. “How we treat people with crimes is a reflection on us,” Cindrich said. “We long ago got past the idea of cutting off people’s arms. Why? Because it’s not a civilized thing to do. � When we do something like this, it shows that we’re regressing.” Mandatory minimum sentences have remained controversial since their inception in 1987, after the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act went into effect. A common argument in their favor is that they prevent discrimination by ensuring the same sentence for a specific crime, no matter who committed it or where. Critics argue that the circumstances of each crime are individual, and should be sentenced individually based on the possibility of reform or recidivism, giving the judges the power to decide on a case-by-case basis. Utah’s U.S. attorney, Paul Warner, declined to comment since the case is ongoing. But in court papers, prosecutors argued that the court “would abuse its discretion in granting a downward departure based on the length of the defendant’s mandatory sentences” and that it is obligated to “defer to the broad authority possessed by Congress to determine the type and limits of the sentences for such crimes.” A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office said Warner will continue to support mandatory minimum sentences and uphold Congress’ guidelines. Warner has not yet filed a response to the amicus brief. Lindsay Fortado is a reporter with The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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