(Originally published on SFGate.com)
13 years ago, Weldon Angelos' world was turned upside down; his life instantly transformed into a veritable nightmare. At the age of 24, Angelos was indicted on three counts of marijuana distribution to an undercover informant. His life was to be forever altered, and his story predetermined by the criminal justice system. He would spend the next 55 years of his life in a federal prison, never to set foot outside until, at the age of 79, he served his 20,075th consecutive day. His life plans were now inconsequential. His dreams were dead; his hope vanished. This would be Weldon Angelos' life for the next five-and-a-half decades.
Under federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws -- established in the 1980s at the height of the nation's war on drugs -- Angelos received a 55 year prison term despite being a first-time offender committing a non-violent act. The sentence did not sit well with the presiding judge, Paul Cassell, who, in an interview with ABC News in 2015, stated that, "...he shouldn't be there (prison). Certainly not as long as I had to send him there... The system forced me to do it."
Angelos' sentence brought to light the inherent unjustness of mandatory minimums, garnering attention and concern from average citizens to the rich and famous. The vast majority of mandatory minimum sentences do not include happy endings, and certainly do not include early release. For Angelos, however, after fighting ineffable odds for 13 years, his story entails release from prison, return to his family, and redemption. Though records detailing the intricacies of the release remain sealed, Angelos' attorney, Mark Osler, told the Salt Lake Tribune he attributed his early release to, "the fair and good action of a prosecutor."
"It's overwhelming," Angelos said, taking a break from a family barbeque to participate in the interview. For someone who endured 13 years in prison, there is an almost preternatural optimism evident in his voice. There isn't an ounce of vengeance or spite to be found; he's just happy to be with his family, especially his two teenage sons and daughter, who on Friday received a surprise from their father they will never forget.
"We told the kids someone was going to interview them, so we had cameras all around filming... I slowly walked in the front door, and when my sons saw me, they basically attacked me. They were so happy, they were crying. They had no idea I was getting out, so it was a total surprise."
Angelos had another surprise waiting, though this would involve granting a wish. He attended his son's high school graduation, taking place but one day after his release. "He told me that was his wish, it was the one thing he wanted, for me to see him graduate. And I got to see it," said Angelos.
Weldon's family is equally thrilled to have him home, notably his sister, Lisa Angelos, who began working to free Weldon on his first day of incarceration. "That feeling, when I was told he was being released, was the most indescribable feeling of joy. There's nothing I can ever compare it to," she said. Lisa has been Weldon's biggest supporter, devoting her time to reversing his sentence and his ultimate release. From the outset, her objective was to not allow people to forget about her brother, and to keep the spotlight on his situation despite her own personal doubts. "There were times when I would get overcome, worrying that it might never happen, but I always believed one day he would come home. I wish it could have been last year, before our father (James Angelos) passed away, because he and Weldon wanted that so much. But it wasn't to be."
She testified in front of Congress, assisted attorneys in filing appeals, wrote letters to senators and congressmen on Weldon's behalf, and collaborated with high-profile individuals who had an interest in undoing Weldon's 55 year sentence. Some of the well known individuals who supported Angelos are Senator Mike Lee (R., UT), Paul Cassell, the federal judge who presided over Angelos' sentencing, musician Alicia Keys, Senator Rand Paul, and David and Charles Koch.
"The Koch brothers have been very instrumental in getting my case into the media and putting public pressure on authorities to try and help me in any way possible," Weldon said. "Without their support I'd probably still be sitting in prison." Wherever you align along the political spectrum, chances are you have a fixed perception or opinion of the Koch brothers. When it comes to criminal justice reform, however, specifically removing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders, partisan politics might just be, in one particular instance, miraculously transcended.
"People on the far right and on the far left, complete political opposites, came together to make this possible," Weldon said. Lisa Angelos further elaborated on the role played by the Kochs and the Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Koch Industries, Mark Holden, who worked directly with her.
"They (the Kochs) started a campaign to help fight unjust sentencing and mandatory minimums, and contacted us about Weldon's case," Lisa said. "They interviewed families (with members serving mandatory minimums for non-violent offenses) to be the face of the campaign and chose Weldon's case to make a documentary." Mark Holden, whom Lisa describes as a, "good friend," who has, "continuously helped and supported us," directed the campaign and has been extremely supportive of Weldon and his family.
"He's flown me and my nephews out to see Weldon and is flying my mother and grandma to be here with Weldon this week. They've done so much to help push Weldon's story to the fore, while bringing attention to the cause of ending mandatory minimums. They really want to show how unjust Weldon's case was," Lisa said.
What set Weldon's case apart as the chosen face of the Koch brothers' campaign? "His sentence highlighted a number of abuses in our system that need to be fixed," said Holden. "His sentencing judge said it best, citing examples of different types of laws that Weldon could have broken -- whether an act of terrorism or committing an offense against a child -- those sentences combined for a first time offender like him would be less than the 55 years he received for selling marijuana."
In speaking with Mark Holden, he confirmed that undoing mandatory minimums and fostering criminal justice reform has been a mission of the Koch brothers for the past 12 years. "I'm very grateful and excited that Weldon has been reunited with his family after so long a time period. That's the most important thing... His sentence was a grave injustice." Angelos' release is an accomplishment Holden is proud of, but the countless non-violent offenders still incarcerated remain an obvious concern.
"There are a lot of other people in prison just like Weldon... That's why, in our opinion, we need to have comprehensive criminal justice reform to correct the flaw in the statute that led to Weldon's extreme sentence, which we hope going forward does not inflict someone else with the same injustice," said Holden. "Those that are in prison under similar circumstances, hopefully they will be released as well, which is something provided for in the pending bills in Congress. We hope that the House and Senate come together and get this legislation passed."
The bill -- the Criminal Justice Reform Initiative -- has received bi-partisan support, with one of its strongest advocates being Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ). Booker stated that, "The case of Weldon Angelos starkly illustrates what's broken in America's criminal justice system, and I'm encouraged by his release."
"A first-time, nonviolent drug offender being sentenced to a 55 year sentence burdens taxpayers and doesn't make us any safer. Consequences for breaking the law should be proportionate to the severity of the offense. When even the presiding judge condemns a mandatory minimum punishment as unfair and unjust, you know its time for a smarter approach to sentencing nonviolent offenders," said Senator Booker.
Holden is confident that the current Criminal Justice Reform Initiative before Congress would provide a solution to mandatory minimums. "If congress passes the legislation and the president signs it into action, yes, this would be a fix," he said. "The bill is one of our foremost goals. We believe in removing barriers to opportunities for the least advantaged. If you look at the criminal justice system, it has, in a lot of ways, created a two-tier system where the poor get a far worse deal than the wealthy. If you're rich and connected, you're probably going to get a good deal. If you're poor, you're probably not. Guilt and innocence can largely be irrelevant. We want to fix that because it is such an injustice."
What does the future hold for Weldon Angelos? He's still figuring that out, which seems appropriate given that he's been a free man all of three days. "A lot of doors closed for me, that's what happens when you're locked in prison. But some doors have recently opened and there may be opportunities given the amount of support I received from so many people." One such opportunity has already presented itself, as one of Angelos' high-profile supporters, CEO of Kushboys, Jamal Weathers, has invited him to play a role in the newly established Cannabis Minority Alliance.
Additionally, Weldon plans to write about his experiences and is considering producing a documentary to tell his story. "More than anything I plan to be an advocate, traveling to DC and advocating for the criminal justice reform bill. And public awareness, just speaking out, I'd like to make public appearances and further educate people on the situation I faced, that so many others are currently facing. Anything I can do to give back to the many people who supported me, that's of great interest to me," said Weldon. "I want to give back, I want to help those who helped me and I want to make criminal justice reform a reality. And if I can do so by sharing my experience and my story, that's something I'm very passionate about."
Additionally, Angelos would like to see President Obama spend the rest of his term commuting sentences related to non-violent marijuana sales and possession. "There are thousands of cases just like mine, and he should be working for their release before his term ends." Angelos also cited Obama's support for the Criminal Justice Reform Initiative as a priority. "Obama should do everything in his power to get it passed," he said. "For low-level, non-violent marijuana offenders, it's critical."
For the immediate future, Weldon Angelos plans to stay in Utah with family and get back on his feet. He, together with Lisa, would eventually like to meet the innumerable individuals who worked tirelessly on Weldon's behalf, and have the opportunity to thank each of them.
"There was so much support, and I've never had such a feeling of love from so many -- the general public, celebrities, senators -- and there's no feeling like that in the world, having so many people care so much about you. And I want to be able to somehow thank everyone who showed support, every single person, if I can ever find a way to do that."