In 1993, a jury convicted Clarence Aaron for his role in two planned cocaine deals. Aaron was a 23-year-old college student. It was his first offense. Unlike his co-defendants, Aaron was not a career drug dealer. He didn’t know enough to plead guilty and testify against others to win a reduced sentence. He perjured himself in court. A federal judge sentenced Aaron to three terms of life without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug offense.
Aaron’s only hope of not dying behind bars is a presidential commutation. President George W. Bush might have granted him a pardon. But he didn’t, The Washington Post and ProPublica reported Sunday, after Department of Justice pardon attorney Ronald Rodgers withheld information as he recommended that Bush deny Aaron’s petition.
Rodgers remains the pardon attorney under the Obama administration.
For more than a decade, I’ve urged whoever was president to commute Aaron’s sentence. It’s been an uphill battle. Bush rejected 7,500 applications and commuted 11 sentences. Barack Obama has rejected nearly 3,800 requests and commuted only one sentence.
During the Bush years, I heard rumors that the administration had seriously considered Aaron’s petition. In 2004, a previous pardon attorney recommended against clemency. In search of more favorable recommendations, the Washington Post story confirms, the Bush administration asked the Justice Department to reconsider Aaron’s petition.
When officials consider a pardon, two people can swing a request in an applicant’s favor: the sentencing judge and the U.S. attorney. If either one opposes a commutation, it isn’t likely to happen. During Bush’s first term, sentencing judge Charles Butler would not take a position on Aaron’s petition. In 2008, however, Butler told the White House he did not think it would be unfair to release Aaron immediately, a weak sign of approval.
Whereas her predecessor opposed a pardon, U.S. Attorney Deborah J. Rhodes recommended that the White House commute Aaron’s sentence. Because Aaron did not “accept responsibility” for his actions, however, she favored resentencing Aaron to a 25-year term, which would result in his release in 2014.
Instead, Rodgers resent the 2004 recommendation for denial to the White House. Wrongly, he claimed that Rhodes believed that Aaron’s commutation request was “about 10 years premature.”
Samuel Morison, a former lawyer in the pardon attorney’s office, told me he believes that Bush would have commuted the sentence if Rodgers accurately had conveyed case facts.
I never have argued that Aaron did not deserve prison time. He broke the law, for which there are consequences. Those consequences, however, tend to fall disproportionately on black men.
Obama has a decision to make. The president has the power to pardon when the criminal justice system overreaches. The court put away a first-time nonviolent offender for life, with no chance of parole, but because the feds do not want to admit they made a mistake, Rodgers and his ilk have been willing to let a young man rot in prison for the rest of his life.
The only question is: Will the president let him get away with it?