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November 28, 2004 - The San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Free Clarence Aaron

By Debra J. Saunders

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Blakely News Archive

THE SMALL JOYS of life when you live freely: Walking into your kitchen for that first cup of coffee, driving down a curvy back road with no other cars in sight, choosing what you'll fix yourself for dinner.

These are the small freedoms we take for granted -- yet freedoms we should value and recognize. A just society, therefore, does not yank these rights from a young man for a petty crime for the rest of his life.

The United States of America did just that when a federal court in Alabama sentenced Clarence Aaron to life without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug conviction.

He was 22 when he hooked two dealers up for two drug deals; they paid him $1,500. He has been in prison for 11 years, and he will die behind bars unless President Bush commutes his sentence.

This is the fourth Christmas season that I've written about Clarence Aaron. I've never met him. We spoke on the phone once. Aaron then told me that he simply cannot believe he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

I can't believe that my America would consider that justice.

What happened?

Aaron was a college student who was experiencing family and financial problems. I mention that he was a student not to put a halo on his head, but to point out that Aaron was not a professional drug dealer.

Yet somehow, all but one of the six dealers involved in his saga were released from prison years ago, even though they had criminal records or were known as big players in the drug trade. They knew enough to cut a deal, and they knew people they could turn on. Aaron didn't.

The local U.S. attorney charged Aaron with dealing in crack, because one dealer converted the cocaine to crack. The court also convicted Aaron for drugs that never traded hands as one of the dealers robbed the other. Hence, while nine kilograms of cocaine were traded hands, Aaron is serving time for 24 kilograms of crack.

Aaron also made the mistake of pleading not guilty and perjuring himself in court, which enhanced his sentence.

Oh, and did I mention that Aaron is black?

Aaron now admits his guilt. He has a clean prison record. In 2000, the Atlanta warden petitioned to move Aaron to a less secure facility. He has no prior record, no history of violence.

Yet he is serving the same sentence that FBI-agent-turned spy Robert Hanssen is serving.

Attorney Mary Price of Families Against Mandatory Minimums noted: "He got a longer sentence than he would have got had he hijacked an airplane, had he detonated a bomb in a public place, had he committed second degree murder or had he raped a 10-year-old child."

A recent ruling by a federal court -- now before the U.S. Supreme Court -- would make Aaron's sentence far less likely to occur if the same case were before a court today.

If the Supreme Court justices uphold the Blakely decision, jurors would have to rule on the amount of drugs and kind of drugs for which a defendant is convicted.

As Price pointed out, if the court had sentenced Aaron for cocaine instead of crack, his sentence would be under 16 years -- even if you include the 15 kilograms from the second deal that didn't happen.

A Department of Justice spokesman had no comment on the case, as it is pending. Over the years and off the record, others in law enforcement have told me they think this is an insane sentence -- a fluke, if you will.

And it says something that the Bush administration has not denied Aaron's petition -- after denying some 3,446 commutation requests and approving two, according to Margaret C. Love, who served as pardon attorney for the first President Bush.

Since I started writing on Aaron, the system has shown mercy -- for other people. The judge who sentenced Aaron to life without parole sentenced a white lawyer turned drug dealer to four months in a work-release facility.

When the George Washington University Medical Center learned that Vice President Dick Cheney's (now former) physican was illegally prescribing himself drugs, the doctor was allowed to enter a program that allowed him to continue prescribing drugs.

If the concept of equal justice means anything, President Bush will grant Clarence Aaron what any white professional who screws up would get -- a second chance.

E-mail Debra J. Saunders at

©2004 San Francisco Chronicle

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