Debra J. Saunders

"That situation didn't define who I was," Clarence Aaron, 45, told a group gathered for a weekend celebration at the Mobile high school he attended about two decades ago. When, at age 24, he found himself in federal prison in 1993 -- after he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug offense -- he felt what he called the "stigma." But the former LeFlore High varsity football star refused to give in to the bitterness of receiving a life sentence while career drug dealers received decades less time. He had a plan: Follow the rules. Work hard. Even in maximum security, be the best person he could be.

"Effort only releases reward when one refuses to quit," Aaron said. "You never see a full reward until it's over." His journey began to end in December, when President Barack Obama commuted Aaron's barbaric sentence. On April 17, his ankle bracelet came off.

On April 26, Aaron held the celebration to thank his many supporters. Dorothy Gaines, a Mobile grandmother sentenced to more than 19 years after damning testimony from her dealer boyfriend, won a presidential commutation from President Bill Clinton in 2000. She railed against the injustice of federal mandatory minimum sentences.

Behind Aaron sat his cousin Aaron Martin, who served as a chief promotions officer, attorney, Margaret Colgate Love, and mother, Linda, who never gave up hope that her son would come home. Then there was an uncle whose son had testified against Aaron.

The next day, Aaron tells me that not everyone was on his side during his years in the justice system.

Former U.S. Attorney Deborah J. Rhodes supported a commutation in 2008. Nonetheless, she dismissed Aaron's insistence that he was a cash-strapped student who stumbled into introducing a kingpin to a drug supplier. The court, she argued, believed he had been an organizer or manager.

So for two hours, we went over the record. I wanted to know what really happened.

Aaron's commutation petition tells this story. When he was 10, Aaron's parents sent their eldest son away from the housing project where they lived to be raised by his grandfather in the working-class Toulminville neighborhood. The plan paid off. Aaron became the first member of the family to go to college.

When his grandfather died of cancer in 1991, Aaron was a junior at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There was a family fight over the estate. In 1992, Aaron was broke and angry. He made the biggest mistake of his young life.

Debra J. Saunders

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