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Commute This Sentence
A clemency case not even President Bush can ignore -- or can he?

Saturday, December 9, 2006

THE SUPREME Court this week declined to review the case of Weldon Angelos, leaving in place his obscene sentence of 55 years in prison for small-time marijuana and gun charges. The high court's move is no surprise; the justices have tended to uphold draconian sentences against constitutional challenge. But it confronts President Bush with a question he will have to address: Is there any sentence so unfair that he would exert himself to correct it?

So far, Mr. Bush hasn't found one. He has commuted only two sentences, both of inmates who were about to be released anyway. Mr. Angelos, by contrast, is a young man and a first-time offender who is now likely to spend the rest of his life in prison. His crime? He sold $350 in marijuana to a government informant three times -- and carried, but did not display, a gun on two of those occasions. Police found other guns and pot at his house. The U.S. district judge who sentenced him in Utah, Paul G. Cassell, declared the mandatory sentence in this case "unjust, cruel, and even irrational." He noted that it is "far in excess of the sentence imposed for such serious crimes as aircraft hijacking, second degree murder, espionage, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and rape." And in an extraordinary act, he explicitly called on Mr. Bush to use his clemency powers to offer what he as a judge could not: justice. Judge Cassell recommended that Mr. Bush commute the sentence to 18 years, which he described as "the average sentence recommended by the jury that heard this case."

Mr. Bush put Judge Cassell on the bench. As a law professor before that, he was a staunch advocate of tough justice; his chief claim to fame, in fact, was having pressed the Supreme Court to overturn its landmark Miranda decision requiring police to read criminal suspects their constitutional rights. His exceptional discomfort with this case -- and his passionate plea for presidential mercy -- ought to carry weight even with a president so disinclined to use the powers the Constitution gives him to remedy injustices.

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