Nine years ago today, Clarence Aaron was sentenced to three life
sentences without parole.
Is he a traitor? A serial killer? A terrorist? No. Aaron is a
33-year-old nonviolent first-time drug offender who 10 years ago hooked
together two drug dealers and was paid $1,500.
The punishment does not fit the crime. At the time of the deal,
Aaron was a senior at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and having
trouble paying for school. Unlike his co-defendants, Aaron had no criminal
record, no known drug history, no history of violence. Unlike the drug
dealers, Aaron had worked steadily from adolescence to pay for his education
and help support his family.
Yes, Aaron broke the law.
For his crime, Aaron admitted by phone from the federal pen in
Atlanta, he deserved to serve time, maybe five to 10 years. But life without
Don't credit tough drug laws -- not when all but one of the six
other people involved in the two drug rings were let out of prison. And
these are men with records or known to have been bigger players in the
Marion Teano Watts -- one of the two dealers -- testified that
he was "a major crack cocaine distributor in the Mobile area" and had made
"over a million dollars." Watts served seven years and 10 months behind
bars. He has been free since early 2000.
The other dealer, Gary Chisholm, according to court documents,
threatened to "skin" the sister of a drug-ring member. Chisholm also was
charged in a different case for dealing 15 kilograms of cocaine. His
sentence was reduced to 24 years.
So why is Aaron the only defendant now facing a life sentence?
Aaron's Boston attorney, Gregg Shapiro, credits "sentence inversion," a
phenomenon described by the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals: "Bold
dealers may turn on their former comrades. ... Drones of the organization --
the runners, mules, drivers and lookouts -- have nothing comparable to
offer" to prosecutors anxious to cut time in exchange for information.
Aaron made a second mistake: He failed to plead guilty.
Apparently, not pleading guilty and not snitching is a bigger crime -- or at
least rates a bigger penalty -- than being a drug kingpin.
When I asked if he thought he would have received the same
sentence if he were white, Aaron answered: "I hate to put a black and white
thing on it. I see it every day here. I look around and see the young blacks
that come into these walls. ... I don't see too many young white kids coming
into the penitentiary."
Aaron has a stellar prison record. In 2000, the Atlanta warden
petitioned unsuccessfully to move Aaron to a less secure facility. The
warden noted Aaron's clean disciplinary record. Prison officials
consistently have rated his work as a personnel clerk as "outstanding."
Aaron has only one hope -- President Bush -- who can and should
commute his sentence to time served.
The bad news is that Bush has yet to exercise his pardon powers.
The good news is that this Christmas season would be a good time to start.
"By this time, in their terms, every president in recent history
except for Bill Clinton had already granted a number of pardons," noted
Margaret Love, who was pardon attorney for Bush pere. "It's better to begin
pardoning early, because if you wait until the end of your term, like Bill
Clinton did, it will only get you into trouble."
A Justice Department official tells me Aaron's pardon
application is "pending." For his part, Aaron won't let himself believe that
he'll never get out, that in America he would have to give up liberty for
the rest of his life for one stupid, nonviolent criminal act.
Now, only one act of compassion by George W. Bush can save him.