Why Was Clarence Aaron’s Pardon Request Denied?

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In 1999’s Snitch, FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel told the story of Clarence Aaron, a 23-year-old student who was sentenced to three concurrent life sentences after being convicted of conspiring to distribute crack cocaine — despite the fact that he did not buy, sell or supply the drugs, nor did he have a previous criminal record.

Aaron’s conviction came because of a 1988 “conspiracy amendment” to mandatory minimum sentencing laws which stipulated that the lowest person in a so-called drug conspiracy could be punished with the maximum sentence, designed for a kingpin.

Aaron has been serving his sentence since 1992, and his case has generated attention over the years as activists and lawmakers championed for his early release. Even the prosecutor’s office and his sentencing judge supported a pardon. But as a new investigation by ProPublica reveals:

… the George W. Bush administration, in its final year in office, never knew the full extent of their views, which were compiled in a confidential Justice Department review, and Aaron’s application was denied, according to an examination of the case by ProPublica based on interviews with participants and internal records.

That Aaron joined the long line of rejected applicants illuminates the extraordinary, secretive powers wielded by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the branch of the Justice Department that reviews commutation requests. 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.

ProPublica reporter Dafna Linzer examined Aaron’s story as part of her investigation into presidential pardons, which revealed that from 2001 to 2008, “white applicants were nearly four times as likely to receive presidential pardons as minorities.”

But Aaron’s case also highlights how U.S. anti-drug laws — including federal mandatory minimum sentencing and conspiracy provisions — has bred a culture of snitching that is in many cases rewarding the guiltiest and punishing the less guilty.

The boys who testified against Aaron were his friends from high school and his first cousin with whom he grew up in Alabama. Aaron introduced his friends, who were involved in dealing drugs, to people he knew in Baton Rouge who were also involved in drugs. He drove them from one city to the other, accompanied by his cousin, and was paid $1,500 for his help.

Of the four witnesses who testified against Aaron in order to avoid life sentences, two served less than five years, and only one, the drug supplier, is still behind bars, though he is scheduled to be released in 2014. Aaron’s cousin did not serve a day, and his mother and father say the betrayal tore the whole the family up.

Aaron is currently in a federal penitentiary in Talladega, Ala. and submitted a new petition for commutation in April 2010.

“If I was to be granted that commutation,” Aaron told ProPublica, “the president who backed me wouldn’t regret it, because I would work hard every day to prove my worthiness.”

Dig Deeper:

Read our interview with Clarence Aaron from our 1999 film Snitch, and explore ProPublica’s timeline of his quest for clemency.

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