As an embattled and deeply divided nation looked to turn the page on the shitshow that was 2020, emotions boiled over in the new year and January has been chaotic, politically, to say the least.
The page was turned, however, and for the new chapter in American politics to begin, the last one had to end. While the end of the previous presidency was unlike any other in our nation’s history, one thing it had in common with the end of every other administration in our lifetimes was the last-minute pardons and clemencies given out by the outgoing president.
The roller coaster of emotions associated with these all-too-rare events is always gut-wrenching, but this time around the uncertainty was palpable as nobody quite knew what President Trump would do.
The only thing that we knew for sure was that a dedicated group of independent and unaffiliated prisoner advocacy organizations had been working for years on behalf of the thousands of men and women locked up in this country for non-violent cannabis-related crimes.
As the talk of pardons grew louder, our ears turned toward these grassroots activists to gauge their confidence that some of the names on the president’s pardons list might belong to the folks who they have dedicated so much time and effort to help set free.
However, as is the case more often than not during these mass-pardon events, any joy we felt from seeing names like Craig Cesal, Michael Pelletier, Way Quoe Long, and others on that reprieve list was immediately tempered by the names we had hoped to see, but didn’t.
THE FIGHT TO FREE LUKE SCARMAZZO
Luke Scarmazzo’s cannabis story is well-documented, including in an in-depth article that we wrote in support of his release back in May of 2020.
In that piece, we reported on the brotherhood that was formed between Luke and a fellow inmate by the name of Weldon Angelos who, like Luke, had been caught up in a high-profile cannabis case.
After serving over 12 years, Angelos had his 55-year sentence cut short in 2016 when he was released from prison under then-President Obama. A free man, but still a convicted felon, Angelos went to work trying to provide that path to freedom for his friend Luke and others trapped in the system.
A man with plenty of celebrity connections already from his time in the music industry, Weldon’s advocacy efforts put him face to face with some of the most powerful lawmakers and thought leaders in the nation and allowed him to deliver his message for reform directly to D.C.
His prominence in the space also led to a full pardon from President Trump in December of 2020.
When the mainstream media reported that the president planned to follow that “early” pardon with anywhere from 100-200 more in his waning weeks in power, the effort to ensure that Luke Scarmazzo made the list was highly prioritized by Angelos and his team.
When his name wasn’t there, it came as a shock to those of us who have been following his story, as well as to Weldon Angelos who was confident that he had made the case to free his friend.
So, we reached out to Weldon Angelos to see what happened, and what happens next.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM REFORM, NOW
To us, perhaps the most frustrating part of the presidential pardon process is the tradition of waiting until the 11th hour of their time in power to do the right thing.
If the folks who did make the list did not deserve to be in prison anymore, what the fuck were they doing there for the past four years, or eight years, or even longer?
Why not Mass-Pardon-Mondays in the Rose Garden until all cannabis prisoners are free?
As it turns out, it was the last-minute nature of the pardon “tradition” that may have left Luke behind this time around.
With prominent White House advisors like the president’s own daughter, Ivanka Trump, in his personal contacts list, Angelos felt sure that Scarmazzo would be granted clemency or a pardon. He was so sure, in fact, that he left Luke a message to that effect, about a week before the decisions were announced to the public. Contact info for Luke and his family was even passed along to the White House so that Ivanka could deliver the good news when the time came.
Angelos also used those final days to lobby on behalf of former Death Row Records exec Michael “Harry-O” Harris, who did eventually get the pardon from President Trump.
Those final days were far from what we have seen in the past, however, as lame-duck presidents usually handshake their way out of office with a shit-eatin’ grin on their faces.
Media reports that President Trump’s massive pardon list would be broken up into at least two phases were immediately overshadowed by violence erupting in the nation’s capital, as enraged rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol building while lawmakers were in session leaving five people dead before all was said and done.
That fateful day was January 6th.
The first tranche of Trump Pardons was due to be released on January 7th, but of course, that didn’t happen as the entire nation reeled from what it had just witnessed.
Instead, the outgoing president issued the full pardon and commutation list containing 143 names on Tuesday, January 19th, his last full official day in office.
This gave Angelos quite literally no time to put up one more fight for his friend’s freedom once he realized that Luke’s name was not one of those 143.
The only answer given by his D.C. contacts was that there was some last-minute pushback from the Justice Department on some of the names on the list and while nobody can confirm if Scarmazzo’s name drew that level of scrutiny, the fact remains that he was denied his freedom once again.
So, instead of calling his friend with the best news possible, Angelos lent an empathetic ear to Scarmazzo, and his fears and doubts that had understandably resurfaced.
A demand for answers from the past administration will do nothing to get Luke freed, so Angelos is pushing forward, eager to steer a new presidential administration toward comprehensive criminal justice reform. Not only for Luke but for the thousands of prisoners that are still incarcerated over their past relationship with a plant that is now a billion-dollar government-sanctioned industry.
In the conclusion of this two-part series, out next week, we will look at some of the possible solutions for this hypocrisy.
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