SALT LAKE CITY — President Barack Obama on Wednesday commuted the prison terms of two Utahns who were convicted of drug charges more than a decade ago, including one serving a life sentence.
Joe R. Alvarado, of Ogden, and Pauline K. Blake, of West Valley City, are among 214 federal inmates for whom the president granted a reduced sentence.
Alvarado, 63, is nearly 12 years into a life sentence for dealing methamphetamine and possessing a gun as a felon. He is in a high security federal penitentiary in Victorville, California. His sentence will now expire on Aug. 3, 2018.
Blake, 50, received a 210-month sentence — more than 17 years — for manufacturing and distributing meth, and possessing meth-making chemicals in January 2002. The sentence was increased to 292 months or more than 24 years in January 2004.
She will now be released Dec. 1 from a medium security prison in Victorville.
Salt Lake attorney George Burbidge II, who drafted Alvarado's clemency petition, delivered the news to Alvarado in a phone call Wednesday.
"He seemed a little subdued and a little surprised, but he's also very grateful that he's going to be given another chance," Burbidge said.
"All of a sudden there's hope," he said. "All of a sudden this isn't something where he's going to die in prison without ever having a chance to spend time with his family and get back and be productive again."
Former U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, who sentenced Alvarado in 2004, wrote a letter to Obama in February supporting Burbidge's efforts.
"It was such a long sentence that it didn't seem like the right result," he said, adding that mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines called for life due to Alvarado's repeat drug dealing. "If I didn't have my hands tied, I would have given him 151 months."
Cassell noted the "grossly disproportionate" sentence far exceeds what he had to impose on murderers during his time on the bench.
Alvarado will get out in two years to allow him time to enter a drug treatment and reintegration program — options that weren't available to him earlier because of his life sentence.
Now a University of Utah law professor, Cassell has long questioned unduly harsh mandatory minimum penalties that federal judges have had to impose.
He also appealed to Obama on behalf of Weldon Angelos, whom he reluctantly sentenced to 55 years behind bars for two $350 marijuana deals with an undercover agent in 2004. Angelos' crime, which was his first drug offense, was enhanced because he had a handgun with him during the drug deals that he never brandished or used.
Though Obama didn't commute his sentence, Angelos was unexpectedly freed from prison in June.
Cassell said sentences like those imposed on Angelos and Alvarado are anomalies in the federal system, but ones that need to be corrected.
Officers with the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force first arrested Alvarado at Checker Auto Store in September 2003. The strike force and Riverdale police arrested him again in October, and the state filed first-degree felony charges against him that same month.
The Weber County Attorney's Office then decided to transfer the case to federal court, according to court documents. Alvarado's attorney at the time argued that the state moved the case because Alvarado would get a more severe sentence in the federal system.
A grand jury indicted Alvarado on two counts of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and one count each of possession of a firearm by a felon and possession of a firearm by a person addicted to drugs in November 2003.
A jury found him guilty in July 2004 on the two meth charges and possessing a gun as a felon.
The gun possession charge was based on a search of Alvarado's home after he was arrested and he did not have a firearm with him when officers took him into custody, Cassell wrote in the letter.
Burbidge said Alvarado sold meth to support his own habit and that he wasn't "some sort of kingpin" in a drug ring.
Alvarado unsuccessfully appealed the jury verdict and the sentence to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take his case.
Burbidge took on Alvarado's petition after the federal public defender's office notified Utah lawyers that the Obama administration planned to review some mandatory minimum sentencing cases. Though he's a civil litigator and it was outside his normal practice, he said it "sounded like a good thing to do."
He called the experience educational and enjoyable.
"I'm pleased with the outcome because I feel like I've done something that really made a difference for someone," Burbidge said.
While Alvarado won't get out of prison for two years, Blake is set to be released in four months.
Blake, also known as Patricia Christensen, and Daniel Lee Larsen were arrested in January 2000 after a confidential informant alerted the Utah County Major Crimes Task Force to a meth lab in a storage unit in Draper.
A federal grand jury indicted them on charges of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute; conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine; establishing a place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, and using methamphetamine; possession of pseudoephedrine; possession of iodine and attempting to manufacture methamphetamine.
In addition, Larsen was charged with possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense.
A jury convicted Blake and Larsen on all counts in October 2001. U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball sentenced Blake to 210 months in prison, which was later increased to 292 months, and Larsen to 384 months or 32 years.
Larsen, 42, remains incarcerated in a federal prison in Florence, Colorado.
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