2012] CRUEL AND UNUSUAL FEDERAL PUNISHMENTS 71
The fifty-five-year sentence imposed upon Weldon Angelos in 2004
caused quite a stir. Angelos had been convicted of three counts of possessing
a firearm in furtherance of a federal drug-trafficking crime after having
twice sold a moderate amount of marijuana to a government informant.1
Fifty-five years imprisonment was the mandatory minimum sentence for the
firearm possession counts; District Judge Paul Cassell had no discretion to
impose a lesser sentence, meaning that Angelos, twenty-four years old at the
time, would very likely die in prison.2 This mandatory sentence exceeded
what Angelos could have received in any State for the same conduct, and far
exceeded the seven years in prison he could have received in Utah, where
the crimes occurred.3 Judge Cassell called the sentence “cruel, unjust, and
irrational.”4 He openly called upon Congress to amend the mandatory-
minimum provision at issue, and upon the President of the United States to
commute Angelos’ sentence.5 An extraordinary coalition of 163 individuals
consisting of former United States District and Circuit Judges, former
United States Attorneys, and even four former Attorneys General of the
United States, filed a brief amicus curiae, arguing that the sentence
constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth
Amendment.6 Yet both Judge Cassell in sentencing Angelos as the statute
required and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in affirming
the sentence rejected this argument.7
Angelos is but an extreme example of the disconnect between, on the
one hand, the sense that federal sentencing in some cases has gone haywire,
and, on the other hand, the unwillingness of federal judges to find merit in
Eighth Amendment challenges to federal sentencing. In a recent survey, a
majority of federal judges indicated their belief that the mandatory
minimum federal sentences for trafficking crack cocaine and marijuana and
for receiving child pornography were excessive.8 Over forty percent thought
1. See United States v. Angelos, 345 F. Supp. 2d 1227, 1230 (D. Utah 2004), aff’d, 433
F.3d 738 (10th Cir. 2006).
3. Id. at 1259.
4. Id. at 1230.
5. Id. at 1230–31.
6. See Amici Curiae Brief at 1–2, United States v. Angelos, 433 F.3d 738 (10th Cir. 2006)
(No. 04-4282), 2005 WL 2347343.
7. Angelos is discussed more fully infra Part II.B.2.
8. See U.S. SENTENCING COMM’N, RESULTS OF SURVEY O F UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGES
JANUARY 2010 THROUGH MARCH 2010, at 5 tbl.1 (2010), available at www.ussc.gov/Research/
Research_Projects/Surveys/20100608_Judge_Survey.pdf. Of the 942 federal district judges to
whom the survey questions were asked, 639 responded, a response rate of 67.8%. Id. at 3.
Concededly, the figure for crack cocaine trafficking might be lower today, given that the survey
results were collected before the effective date of the Act to Restore Fairness to Federal Cocaine
Sentencing, commonly known as the “Fair Sentencing Act of 2010,” which lowered sentences