Drug War "Justice" in Utah (William Norman Grigg)
Wednesday December 11th, 2013
Utah resident Virginia Ward cried on November 18 as she was sentenced to 90 days in jail – and three years of probation -- for drug trafficking. This meant that she would join the large and ever-growing population of prisoners she helped to create as a former Justice Court Judge.
As if in compensation for having to spend Christmas behind bars, Ward was allowed to open several presents early. When she was arrested earlier this year, Ward confronted the possibility of two 15-year prison sentences for her role in a multistate smuggling operation. Before the case went before a judge, the prosecutor had dropped one of the charges in exchange for a guilty plea.
Thus began an unusual auction in which the prosecutor, the parole department, and the trial judge sought to bid down the price their former colleague would pay for breaking laws she had enforced while feeding her own Oxycodone addiction.
During the sentencing hearing Ward was informed that the prosecution had reduced its sentencing recommendation to six months. The judge cut that already lenient sentence in half. For its part, the department of probation and parole had recommended against any jail time.
“Mercy should be tempered with maintaining the public trust,” pontificated Assistant Utah Attorney General Scott Reed, seeking to fortify the fiction that his office was seeking accountability. “You cannot separate the fact that this conduct occurred while she was a sitting and active judge, an active member of the Utah State Bar, a mother of two children.”
The facts described by Reed would suggest that the appropriate sentence would be one of exemplary severity, rather than one of uncommon leniency. What Reed must have meant, given the arrangements made by his office, was that the punishment Ward’s illegal conduct should be mitigated by her position and the faithful service she had rendered on behalf of the prison-industrial complex.
As the Salt Lake Tribune observed, other defendants in the courtroom who were not clothed in similar privilege found the spectacle to be less than edifying.
“Slap on the wrist,” muttered one in disgust.
“I would have gotten the same sentence for a speeding ticket,” added another.
Not only was Ward given a relatively trivial punishment (in comparison to what others would receive, in any case), she was also the beneficiary of special arrangements intended to shield her from potential retaliation by others whose freedom she had taken away. When she reported for jail the day before Thanksgiving, Ward was taken to a cell outside of Salt Lake County, in order to avoid other inmates she had imprisoned for indulging in weaknesses similar to her own.
Ward says that she became addicted to Oxycodone after obtaining a prescription to deal with a neck injury. The judge was receiving packages containing the prescription drug at a UPS store in Salt Lake City. She was in possession of 338 Oxycodone tablets when DEA agents arrested her in March.
She told investigators that she was taking the pills to another person – named either Jose or Josh – in exchange for a small portion of them. She also described trading other controlled substances in exchange for the painkiller.
While government has no legitimate authority to regulate what people freely consume, it is also true that abuse of prescription medication is a serious public health concern, particularly in Utah.
Utah finds itself “up near the top in the country” regarding prescription drug abuse, Dr. Glen Hanson of the Utah Addiction Center at the University of Utah told the Deseret News. “For almost every other drug of abuse, whether it’s tobacco, or alcohol, or cocaine, or heroin, we’re usually way down near the lowest in the country.”
Given the severity of that problem (which cannot be solved by imprisoning addicts or those who supply their drugs, of course), Ward’s involvement in an interstate smuggling ring would likely have been rewarded with a long stint in federal prison – if she hadn’t been involved in feeding other human beings into the maw of the penal system.
While Ward prepared to spend her first Christmas in jail, fellow Utah resident Weldon Angelos is about to spend his ninth Christmas in federal prison.
Assuming that the father of three children survives prison, his freedom will not be restored until 2059, when he will be 78 years old. The supposed crime for which Weldon will spend nearly his entire life in a cage was selling about 24 ounces of marijuana to a police informant.
In 2002, Angelos, a successful musician and record producer, was lured into selling small amounts of marijuana to a childhood friend name Ronnie Lazalde, who was involved in a local gang called Varrio Loco Town. Lazalde was facing serious narcotics and firearms charges, and in an effort to obtain a "downward departure" on his prospective prison sentence he agreed to act as an informant.
At the time, Angelos's criminal record contained a single conviction as a juvenile for possession of a handgun. He admits that he was involved in small-time marijuana dealing at the time Lazalde approached him.
In three separate transactions observed by officers with Salt Lake City’s Metro Gang Unit, Angelos sold eight ounces of pot to Lazalde. Eager to validate his claim that his erstwhile friend was a major drug dealer -- and therefore a bigger prize to police -- Lazalde continually demanded that Angelos sell him cocaine and firearms. That prompted Angelos to cut off any further contact with the informant after the third deal.
In July of that year, Angelos was arrested and cited for carrying a small pistol in an ankle holder. When Lazalde learned of that arrest, he contacted his handler, Detective Jason Mazuran (who is now a SWAT commander in Salt Lake City). Displaying the insouciant disregard for truth that typifies his professional, Mazuran retro-fitted that detail into previous reports of the drug deals: Now Angelos was accused of carrying a firearm in connection with drug trafficking.
Federal prosecutor Robert Lund, who seems to be the type of person whose character could profit from an encounter with the Iron Sheik, offered Angelos a deal: Fifteen years in federal prison in exchange for a guilty plea to one three counts of drug dealing and one firearms-related offense under section 924[c] of the federal criminal code.
Not surprisingly, Angelos declined that offer. Unfortunately, Angelos had been a member of the productive sector, rather than a functionary of the criminal “justice” system, so he couldn’t expect the kind of leniency that had been extended to Ward.
Federal prosecutors prefer to obtain convictions through extortion, rather than a trial. Lund obtained a superseding indictment charging Angelos with five 924[c] offenses that would carrying a minimum mandatory sentence of 105 years in prison.
None of the police observing the controlled marijuana buys reported seeing a gun. Lazalde made no mention of seeing a gun during his original debriefing. No video, audio, or photographic evidence of a gun was ever produced by the police. All of the original police reports of the transactions are barren of any mention of a firearm.
However, by the time the case went to trial in late 2004, the testimony offered by the officers and their informant had been revised to meet the needs of the prosecution. As is generally the case in federal trials, the jury delivered a conviction.
“The court believes that to sentence Mr. Angelos to prison for the rest of his life is unjust, cruel, and even irrational,” declared federal Judge Paul Cassell at sentencing. “It is also far in excess of the sentence imposed for such serious crimes as aircraft hijacking, second-degree murder, espionage, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and rape.”
Despite the fact that he appeared to be a man burdened with a conscience, Cassell imposed what he admitted was an unconstitutionally cruel sentence, even as he urged presidential commutation “to something that is more in accord with just and rational punishment.”
A prison term of any length as punishment for a voluntary transaction involving a benign substance is neither just nor rational. The only legitimate crime committed in those transactions was the fraudulent behavior of the police informant, who spent a few years in prison and is now free.
"I was able to turn my life around and that's all I can tell you about my past life that is over," Lazalde told Pro Libertate. After if he had thought of interceding on behalf of the childhood friend he had helped put into prison for life, Lazalde replied: "That is not my decision. Years ago Weldon was given the chance to help himself and he chose not to." I pointed out that the "helpful" deal extended to Angelos was to choose between 15 years in prison or a life sentence.
"What was the deal you were offered?" I asked Lazalde.
"Like I told you, my past is my past," the informant insisted, suggesting that any further questions should be directed at Lund.
The barbarous and sadistic sentence imposed on Angelos has drawn international attention and prompted a petition drive seeking presidential clemency. Pot enthusiast-turned-drug warrior Barack Obama, who is as parsimonious with pardons as he is profligate with plundered money, has been inhospitable to such pleas. Robert Lund, who should be shunned as a sociopath, continues to defend the sentence.
“Weldon Angelos was a member of a really violent street gang,” sniffed Lund when asked if the life sentence was disproportionate.
Assuming this is true, Angelos was never charged with any of those offenses (and while Angelos grew up surrounded by VLT members, he insists that he never joined the gang). Furthermore, in order to imprison Angelos – a first-time defendant who was charged with non-violent offenses -- Lund recruited an informant who was an active member of that gang and had an extensive criminal history.
Weldon Angelos is serving what will most likely be a life sentence because of the impudence he displayed by defending himself against the charges. Virginia Ward, who sent insignificant drug offenders to jail while acting as part of a major narcotics syndicate, will be free next year and most likely will find subsidized employment preaching about the evils of drug use and the virtues of prohibition.
William Norman Grigg publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.