Why Was Clarence Aaron’s Pardon Request Denied?


May 14, 2012

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.

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

America’s Legacy of Racist Killings: Key Takeaways from ‘Un(re)solved’
Civil rights era cold case killings. A federal effort to right past wrongs. What a FRONTLINE investigation reveals about the lives lost and the search for justice.
June 17, 2021
Last Responders — Coroners, Funeral Workers and Others — Say They Faced Risks as COVID Spread
Although the CDC maintains the risk of contracting COVID-19 from a dead body is low, there is no U.S. government agency tracking infection rates among last responders: medical examiners, coroners, embalmers, funeral directors and other trained mortuary workers. Workers told FRONTLINE they believe they’re highly exposed.
June 17, 2021
Former Worker Sues Tampa Lead Smelter Over Son’s Exposure
The worker alleges dusty conditions at Gopher Resource, Florida’s only lead factory, resulted in his son’s lead exposure.
June 2, 2021
A Handful of States Fueled a National Increase in Domestic Violence Shooting Deaths as COVID-19 Spread
More than 2,000 people were killed by domestic-violence-related shootings in 2020 — a 4% increase across the U.S. over 2019, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive. But that uptick was not equally distributed.
June 2, 2021