How a Poster Boy for Commutation Falls Through the Cracks

In my October Reason cover story about Barack Obama's drug policies, I noted Clarence Aaron as an example of drug offenders whose sentences the president should commute if he really believes what he used to say about excessively long prison terms. Aaron, now 43, was arrested when he was a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge for connecting a cocaine supplier who was the brother of a classmate to a dealer he knew from high school. Although it was his first offense and he never made, transported, bought, or sold any drugs, he was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. A new investigative article by ProPublica's Dafna Linzer, based on interviews and internal documents, suggests that Aaron, who has been a model prisoner for more than 18 years, probably would be a free man today if the Justice Department's pardon attorney, Ronald Rodgers, had not misrepresented important aspects of his petition.

During the final year of George W. Bush's second term, Linzer reports, "lawyers began searching through denial recommendations for promising cases and found Aaron." The White House asked the Office of the Pardon Attorney to take another look. At this point several new aspects of the case weighed in Aaron's favor, including favorable prison reports and a new affidavit in which he expressed remorse for his role in the cocaine deal. Most crucially, both the judge who sentenced him, Charles Butler Jr., and the U.S. attorney for the district in which was tried, Deborah J. Rhodes, now supported commuting Aaron's sentence. Butler said Aaron "should be granted relief immediately," while Rhodes recommended that he be released in 2014. Yet Rodgers simply resubmitted his office's 2004 denial recommendation. In an email message to Associate White House Counsel Kenneth Lee, Rodgers said only that Butler was not opposed to a commutation and claimed that Rhodes, while supporting commutation "at some point," believed Aaron's petition was "about 10 years premature." Linzer relates Lee's reaction upon hearing what Butler and Rhodes actually had said:

Kenneth Lee, the lawyer who shepherded Aaron's case on behalf of the White House, was aghast when ProPublica provided him with original statements from the judge and prosecutor to compare with Rodgers's summary. Had he read the statements at the time, Lee said, he would have urged Bush to commute Aaron's sentence.

"This case was such a close call," Lee said. "We had been asking the pardons office to reconsider it all year. We made clear we were interested in this case."

Both Rogers and the Justice Department declined Linzer's requests to comment on the case. Linzer, who previously has shown that black offenders such as Aaron are much less likely to receive pardons (which clear the records of people who have completed their sentences) than whites, presents the case as another example of dysfunction in the Office of the Pardon Attorney, on which Bush and Obama both have depended to review clemency petitions and recommend responses. Citing "a former pardon office lawyer," she suggests the office has responded to commutation petition backlogs, which are largely a product of increasingly draconian prison sentences, with cursory reviews and mass denial recommendations. In other words, at the very time when presidential mercy is most needed, it is less likely to be shown, and there is little rhyme or reason to which applicants are lucky enough to receive it.

But a president who relies on overwhelmed or lackadaisical underlings to make his clemency decisions for him can hardly blame them for his failure to use this power as a remedy for obvious injustices like Clarence Aaron's three life sentences for a nonviolent first offense. Gregory Craig, Obama's former counsel, recommends that petitions instead be reviewed by a bipartisan panel outside the Justice Department, a change Obama could make whenever he wants. While Bush's commutation record was pitiful (or maybe that should be "pitiless"), Obama's so far is worse, as Linzer notes:

Obama has rejected nearly 3,800 commutation requests from prisoners. He has approved one. Bush commuted the sentences of 11 people, turning down nearly 7,500 applicants [over two terms]....

Under Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both two-term presidents, one applicant in 100 was successful. Under Bush, approvals fell to barely better than one in 1,000. So far, Obama has commuted the sentences of fewer than one in 5,000. The only person freed by Obama had support from one of the president’s closest congressional allies, Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin. 

That applicant, Eugenia Jennings, was surely deserving, but so are Clarence Aaron and many, many others. Obama's reluctance to commute sentences is especially shameful in light of his repeated objections to senselessly harsh drug penalties.

Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, has said he would "pardon nonviolent drug offenders." Ron Paul, the last remaining challenger to Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination, has made a similar commitment.

More on the pardon power here.

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  • Pip||

    tsrif

  • John||

    "This case was such a close call," Lee said. "We had been asking the pardons office to reconsider it all year. We made clear we were interested in this case."

    A close call? God these people disgust me. Go pray for our soul Mr. Lee. Hell is waiting and it is going to be around a lot longer than three life terms.

  • ChrisO||

    +1

  • sarcasmic||

    I sometimes think that people believe in religion because it helps them to accept the fact that there is no justice for our rulers, that crime does indeed pay (especially if the criminal is government), and that cheaters do indeed prosper.

  • John||

    I believe in religion because that is just the way things are. I didn't choose the universe, I just live in it. And to me there is no question whatsoever that there is a God and by implication some form of higher law and truth. Frankly, life would be easier most days if I just believed in the abyss and nothing else. Or walked around like most atheists and believed in the abyss with a happy ending.

  • ||

    Or walked around like most atheists and believed in the abyss with a happy ending.

    That's an odd perception. Unless there's a Chinese massage therapist assigned to the deathbed of every Atheist, it's not clear where that perception comes from.

  • John||

    Believing in the "abyss with a happy ending" is my term for atheists who walk around claiming that there really is some greater meaning to life even though they and everything they have ever known or did is going to wind up gone and forgotten. Even Nietzsche couldn't face life under those conditions and thus invented infinite recurrence.

  • Mo' $parky||

    So you never heard of Albert Camus then?

  • John||

    No never sparky. Absurdism? What is that. And of course Camus wasn't too happy about that state of affairs either. I would hardly put him in the happy ending camp.

  • Mo' $parky||

    So you don't think a person is capable of leading a full, happy life even while understanding that there is no ultimate meaning to life and all their works will be gone one day? That sounds kinda...sad I guess.

  • ||

    atheists who walk around claiming that there really is some greater meaning to life

    To Sparky's point, this is not the Atheism I'm familiar with. Thus my quizzical response to your statement.

  • Mo' $parky||

    Or walked around like most atheists and believed in the abyss with a happy ending.

    For the sake of not leading to another long, drawn out theological debate let me just offer one thing: Fuck. You. John. You may now carry on with your regularly scheduled Christian life.

  • John||

    LOL. It is as if I struck a nerve or something.

  • Mo' $parky||

    Nope, just don't like being lumped in with Freedom From Religion Foundation assholes. Probably like you wouldn't like being lumped in with Westboro Baptist Church assholes.

  • ||

    It's only wrong to apply the views of a vocal minority to the larger population when others do it Mo.

  • John||

    Sarcasmic, I meant.

    Here is the thing Mo. You can't so much as mention religion on this board in passing without one of the resident atheists coming in and tweaking you for it.

    The point of my post was to say what assholes these people are. The religious reference was incidental. But that didn't stop sarcasmic from making a snarky comment about it. Well that is fine. But I give as good as I get on this subject. And I will snark right back at him.

    It is interesting to see how thin skinned some of the atheists on here get.

  • Mo' $parky||

    It is interesting to see how thin skinned some of the atheists on here get.

    It's almost like you came to a place where everyone is a fan of individual liberty and lumped them all into one group. Weird, I know.

  • John||

    I wouldn't put you in that camp. I was tweaking sparky not you.

  • sarcasmic||

    People with religion talk about atheism in terms of faith in the same way that statists talk about liberty in terms of force.

  • ||

    ^This^

  • Skid Marx||

    ^Seconded^

  • Zeb||

    That's why religion was invented. Tired of getting screwed over in this life? Well, don't worry about it, this is just preparation for your real life. Just give us 10% of your income and you'll be all set. And as a bonus, the threat of hell helps keep sociopaths from hurting other people.

  • Mo' $parky||

    And as a bonus, the threat of hell helps keep sociopaths from hurting other people.

    If only this were true I would probably have a lot less bad feeling toward religion.

  • sarcasmic||

    I don't have bad feelings towards religion.
    On the one hand I kind of pity people who need an invisible friend to tell them the difference between right and wrong, but at the same time I almost envy their "knowledge" that the assholes will "get theirs" in a afterlife.

  • Mo' $parky||

    My bad feelings come from the people who use religion to justify their shenanigans.

  • Raston Bot||

    Good enough for government work.

    And fuck all these assholes.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    The good Christians who have occupied the Oval Office know that compassion and decency are best left up to the jailers.

  • John||

    It shows what phonies they are doesn't it? But what actual good Christian would ever get involved in politics much less get elected President?

  • Mo' $parky||

    Are you saying our politicians aren't Christians or are you saying that Christianity is full of liars and thieves?

  • ||

    False dichotomy!

  • ¿Ex Nihilo?||

    Yes

  • John||

    I am saying both. Christianity brings you salvation for your sins. It doesn't magically make you less of a sinner.

  • Almanian...still||

    That's what my preacher tells me. Priase God! Let us pray...

  • Mo' $parky||

    Most crucially, both the judge who sentenced him, Charles Butler Jr., and the U.S. attorney for the district in which was tried, Deborah J. Rhodes, now supported commuting Aaron's sentence. Butler said Aaron "should be granted relief immediately,"

    Too bad judge isn't one of those jobs where you can admit a mistake and have it immediately undone.

  • John||

    Too bad it didn't dawn on the judge or the US Attorney that maybe three life sentences was a bad idea when thinking that way actually counted for something. Now that advocating for clemency doesn't cost them anything, awfully nice of them to do it.

    Fuck them.

  • Mo' $parky||

    At least we can agree on something.

  • ||

    They had careers to think about, you heartless prick.

  • Almanian...still||

    And their kids. How could their kids show their faces at school? They'd have been taunted with, "Yer dad is a waaaanker..." or whatever the equivalent is.

    So, really, it's for teh chlidrunz.

  • ||

    "Although it was his first offense and he never made, transported, bought, or sold any drugs, he was sentenced to three consecutive life terms."

    Three life terms??? The man should have never gone to jail in the first place. What the fuck is wrong with these people?

    And John, the abyss is just fine with me. Happy ending? What is that?

  • The Unknown Pundit||

    the abyss is just fine with me

    Besides, what does one do when one has eternal life? How does one fill up their time? Working out? Playing golf? Going to the movies? Family cookouts?

    Is there sex in heaven?

    I would think eternal life would get pretty boring after the first 200-300 years.

  • Robert||

    That's only if you remember. If you keep forgetting, it's all new again.

    You don't remember anything from before you were alive, do you? Probably not for even a short time after you were alive. So there is always forgetting.

  • kinnath||

    Three consecutive life sentences for introducing a supplier to a a dealer.

    But ordering the execution of an American citizen without out due process gets you bragging rights.

  • GILMORE||

    I was just in the process of responding to the exact same WTF??! quote... Then noticed I'd be third in a row.

  • Bee Tagger||

    That would make a great facebook post for any among us who like instigating on facebook. (I don't, but I may break my rule to post this).

  • kinnath||

    Just need to clean it up a bit:

    A black man that introduces a supplier to a dealer gets three consecutive life sentences.

    A black man that orders the execution of an American citizen without due process gets bragging rights on national TV.

  • califernian||

    These are truly evil men. So fucking evil. God I hate them all.

    FUCK YOU DRUG WARRIORS. Makes want to believe in god just so they will go to rot in hell.

  • sarcasmic||

    Makes want to believe in god just so they will go to rot in hell.

    Yup.

  • The Unknown Pundit||

    Once again proving that the drug war is tyranny. If three life sentences in this instance isn't proof, I don't know what is.

  • Almanian...still||

    he was sentenced to three consecutive life terms

    I only made it that far. I don't need to be thrown into depression.

    These cases just rip my heart out. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Three life terms? Fucking REALLY? Fuck the people who and keep him in jail - I hope they get hit by a truck and taste their own blood before they die and burn in hell for eternity.

    No - I hope they die in their sleep, peacefully, and then have to wait in line at the DMV-like station that determines whether you go to hell or heaven, but they're in that line forever, and can never sit down, or stretch or take a break. Just stand there in ever-increasing pain and tension. Cause that's what a good statist REALLY deserves.

    fuckers.

  • Scarcity||

    Before dying, though, they should suffer intense, chronic pain that statist-approved doses of pain meds won't touch. For decades.

  • Almanian...still||

    nice add!

  • Coeus||

    Something like this?

  • Almanian...still||

    Oh, and just because it needs to be said:

    SUUUUUUUUUULLLUUUUMMMMMM!!!!!

    You BASTARD! My nuts say, "thanks for the punch!" Thanks for channeling Balko's Ghost. Jerk

  • ||

    I'm an atheist, but I really, really want there to be a really, really awful and painfuland unconscionably disgusting place for these degenerates to languish after they die.

    It's pretty fucking awful what the Office of the President has become, isn't it? If there are people ideologically similar to me in our military, I can't even begin to imagine how excruciating it is to call Barack your commander-in-chief -- I wouldn't trust the fucker to park my car if he were a valet, or piss on him if he were on fire.

  • Almanian...still||

    I really, really want there to be a really, really awful and painfuland unconscionably disgusting place for these degenerates to languish

    Washington, DC and environs!

    Oh - AFTER they die. Right...hmmm...

  • ||

    Like I've suggested in the past on several occasions, Almanian -- teleport all the historical buildings and monuments, etcetera, out of DC, and then nuke the place from orbit. Then, once the effects of the weapon wear out, nuke it again, and again, and again to ensure that the taint has been well and truly scrubbed. Then, for good measure, nuke it once more and take a shit on the spot the Capitol once stood.

  • ¿Ex Nihilo?||

    teleport all the historical buildings and monuments, etcetera, out of DC, and then nuke the place from orbit.

    Just leave the buildings. Most are monuments to war, edifices of government departments or to our 'great' leaders. Just nuke the entire place and be done with it.

  • sarcasmic||

    I was going to say something to that effect but couldn't word it right.

  • daveInAustin||

    Would it be a good idea for Libertarians, who are often accused of being racist, hold a press conference pledging to pardon this man and others like him and asking folks who know him to register their disgust by voting Libertarian?

  • The Unknown Pundit||

    I think Gary Johnson has said he would pardon non-violent drug offenders.

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