Unequal before the law

Posted: Sep 06, 2002 12:00 AM
This just in: The Alabama federal judge who sentenced a black nonviolent first-time drug offender to three concurrent sentences of life without parole in 1993 just has sentenced a white lawyer-turned-drug-dealer to four months in a work-release facility. Why the disparity? John Mark Greer pleaded guilty. He's a lawyer who no doubt understands how the federal courts punish defendants who try to beat a rap. College student Clarence Aaron, 23 at the time of his sentencing, pleaded not guilty. According to a story by Mobile Register reporter Joe Danborn, the feds prosecuted Greer for selling cocaine "in quantities ranging from an ounce to several grams." The feds charged Aaron for moving larger quantities of crack, after he dabbled in the drug world by setting up two drug deals between two dealers. Federal laws are harsher for crack than cocaine. Greer was caught peddling powder cocaine from his office and Mobile bars, while Aaron's charges involved crack. Crack offenders are predominantly black, while cocaine offenders span many racial groups. A dealer who peddles 500 grams of powdered cocaine automatically gets a five-year sentence for a first offense, according to Eric Sterling, who as a congressional aide helped write the 1984 sentencing laws, and in repentance now heads the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. The threshold for crack cocaine is 100 times lower -- it's 5 grams. Another difference between Aaron and Greer: Greer wore a wire and helped the feds collar two higher-level dealers. Aaron didn't offer up a dealer. His Boston attorney Gregg Shapiro explained that because Aaron was a novice in the dealing world, he had "little or nothing to offer prosecutors." And Aaron wasn't a white lawyer. "Obviously, we're not dealing with a run-of-the-mill drug dealer," Judge Charles Butler Jr. explained, after he agreed to give Greer the leniency he denied Aaron. And: "As the court looks across the bench at you, I'm struck by the fact that you've been given every opportunity in life to avoid being here today. You knew the law. You knew the consequences. You knew the severity of it." Yes, Greer knew the severity of the law -- and unlike Aaron, he knew how to get around it. So, Aaron is serving life without parole and Greer gets four months in a facility, and four months wearing an electronic monitor. (He also was disbarred.) The answer, Sterling noted, isn't to sentence Greer to more time. There's little public interest in putting lawyers with drug habits in prison for decades. But it also doesn't serve the public to put Clarence Aaron in prison for life -- for two drug deals, one of which never happened. Some readers may find Aaron's draconian sentence comforting -- proof that drug lords do hard time. Nice dream, but according to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, "The more serious the defendant's crimes, the lower the sentence -- because the greater his wrongs, the more information and assistance he has to offer to a prosecutor." Clarence Aaron supporters say he was a good student who had stayed out of trouble until his grandfather, who raised him since he was 10, died. Then he made some bad moves, and he got caught. Maybe he wasn't so innocent, but he had no record until this arrest. And I know that when I think of criminals who deserve life without parole, it's because they're killers, rapists, child molesters or real drug kingpins. Not wannabe kingpins, whose biggest crime is not being a snitch. If the system can find leniency for a white lawyer who betrayed his profession to sell drugs, it can find leniency for Clarence Aaron. President Bush should commute his sentence.