Debra J. Saunders

A friend from high school approached Aaron to see whether he knew of a cocaine connection in Baton Rouge. A fellow student's brother was a supplier. Thus, Aaron -- a student with no arrests and an athlete who, according to the Department of Justice, had "no history of using drugs" -- introduced Mobile's Marion Teano Watts to Louisiana's Gary Chisholm.

Watts offered $200,000 for a 9-kilogram deal in June. According to court documents, Aaron was paid $1,500.

Aaron flew to Houston to help facilitate a second, larger trade. He told me it was the first time he had ever flown. Armed robbers grabbed the money while Aaron was in the hotel bar making a phone call. Who stole the money? "It became a big issue," Aaron told me. He realized, "I don't know who I can trust." That, said Aaron, finished his short stint in the drug trade.

He was arrested six months later because, according to the Justice Department, authorities had been investigating Watts since 1991. They charged Aaron for the two deals -- 9 kilograms of crack for the first deal, 15 kilograms for the sale that never happened.

Even though he was guilty, Aaron thought he could beat the rap. His first trial ended in a mistrial. In a second trial, with Chisholm as a co-defendant, a jury found both men guilty. Chisholm also was sentenced to life but later was resentenced to 24 years.

So how did the college student with no record get more time than the full-time drug peddlers? Watts, the kingpin who admitted that he was a "major crack cocaine distributor" and made over $1 million in the trade, knew enough to turn informant. He was sentenced to 14 years but served less than eight. His underlings, also informants, served less or no time.

Make no mistake; Aaron was guilty and deserved to go to prison. But there is no justice in letting career criminals out in order to put amateurs away for life. There is little justice in a system that allowed prosecutors to charge a defendant for crack, which carries a stiffer sentence than powder cocaine, even though powder changed hands.

Worse, the feds were able to convict Aaron for a deal that never happened. Worst of all, they didn't have to produce cocaine or other physical evidence to win a conspiracy conviction. All they had to do was get savvier drug purveyors, usually not the most credible people, to say Aaron was an organizer.

Once the verdict was in, a judge had little say in what his sentence would be. The prosecutor chose the punishment by determining the amount of drugs with which to charge him. A federal formula spewed out a number of years to serve, increased because he lied on the stand, and a college kid who made a big mistake lost his future, barring an act of executive clemency.

I do not believe this travesty would have happened to a white college student.

A current U.S. attorney in Alabama, Kenyen R. Brown, told me Aaron most likely would receive "a quite different sentence" if he were tried today. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, signed by Obama, reduced the disparity of sentences for crack versus powder cocaine sentences. Brown approves, as he personally considered the old crack penalties to be "draconian."

But Brown agrees with other prosecutors who maintain that because Aaron perjured himself, he was more culpable than Watts and company. They don't realize it, but what these prosecutors really are saying is that not submitting to federal prosecutors to make their jobs easier is a bigger offense than dealing large quantities of drugs.

Obama has urged Congress to reform federal mandatory minimums. That's great. But he doesn't have to wait for Congress. He can tell Attorney General Eric Holder to send a simple message to every U.S. attorney in the land: Don't reward drug dealers for snitching on girlfriends and gofers. Don't put low-level offenders away for decades more than their crime bosses. Go after the big fish, or don't go fishing.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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