On Sunday, The Washington Post outlined the story of Clarence Aaron, a man who received 3 lifetime sentences in prison for his role in a cocaine deal. This case got a lot of attention, and during the George W Bush administration this case was brought up for an immediate commutation, supported even by the sentencing judge and the prosecutor’s office in his original case:
At 24, he was sentenced to three life terms for his role in a cocaine deal, even though it was hisfirst criminal offense and he was not the buyer, seller or supplier of the drugs. Of all those convicted in the case, Aaron received the stiffest sentence.
When it got to then-President Bush, the full details of the case were never presented and Aaron never received a commutation. The Post elaborates:
Records show that Ronald Rodgers, the current pardon attorney, left out critical information in recommending that the White House deny Aaron’s application. In a confidential note to a White House lawyer, Rodgers failed to accurately convey the views of the prosecutor and judge and did not disclose that they had advocated for Aaron’s immediate commutation.
So what was the decision to leave crucial details out of Aaron’s case based upon? Well, it seems likely it was in part tied to race:
The work of the pardon office has come under heightened scrutiny since December, when ProPublica and The Washington Post published stories showing that, from 2001 to 2008, white applicants were nearly four times as likely to receive presidential pardons as minorities. The pardon office, which recommends applicants to the White House, is reviewing a new application from Aaron. Without a commutation, he will die in prison.
So how did Aaron receive the stiffest sentence to begin with? Bascially, he was the least involved of everyone else convicted in a drug ring, and yet he wouldn’t snitch against his friends. It was his first conviction, and he was a linebacker at Southern University in Baton Rouge, and yet he received the stiffest sentence possible.
Because of these facts, those involved in the case felt this was an open-and-shut case for commutation. However, The Washington Post reports an incredible decline in presidential pardons. And that’s part of what makes this case so fascinating—it seems to go beyond party lines:
The number of pardons awarded has declined sharply in the past 30 years, as have commutations. Obama has rejected nearly 3,800 commutation requests from prisoners. He has approved one. Bush commuted the sentences of 11 people, turning down nearly 7,500 applicants.
Under Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both two-term presidents, one applicant in 100 was successful. Under Bush, approvals fell to barely better than one in 1,000.
And both liberal and conservative television networks have rallied for Aaron’s case and have inquired into the acts of the Pardon office.
It turns out that when Rogers took over the Pardon office, he established a new system for bringing cases in front of the president. One aspect of these changes is that paralegals now write summations of the cases, not lawyers, and cases are presented in large batches for the Presidents’ denial, as opposed to being presented as individuals. Under scrutiny, Rogers reverted back to having lawyers write up the cases, but even then the rate of denials increased 22 times in the last 4 years compared to when Reagan was in office, says The Washington Post.
In the case of Clarence Aaron, his case was personally promoted by many who wanted him commutated to a 25 year sentence, which would allow him to be released in 2014. Rogers said he would present the facts and all of the support to the President, and yet the new facts and endorsements were never presented when submitted in 2004.
Aaron is still in prison in Talladega, Alabama, where he is a model of good inmate behavior:
“A lot of people think I’m crazy, to do self-help programs and stay out of trouble with a sentence like mine,” Aaron said. But “from the first day I walked into the federal prison system, I just continued to better myself and educate myself.”
Aaron has also promised that when his case comes up for review again (it was submitted in 2010 and is still pending) that “the president who backed me wouldn’t regret it, because I would work hard every day to prove my worthiness.”
Hopefully, with the media attention Clarence Aaron has gotten, his case will be fairly presented and reviewed, and that his sentence is commuted.
But what about all the others sitting in those stacks, waiting for their reviews? Will they get the same opportunity as Clarence Aaron?
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