Original 3-part series: www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,464364,00.html
Three life sentences, without parole.
That's how long Calvin Smith -- part of the notorious Murder Inc. drug gang which terrorized Washington, D.C., in the 1990s -- will be in jail for the cold-blooded murder of three people and for dealing drugs.
It's how long Erick John Llorance will be in jail for three holiday-season armed robberies and a shooting in Houston in 2007.
It's how long high school shooter Michael Carneal will be in jail for murdering three girls and injuring five other students while they were standing with their youth prayer group outside Heath High School in Kentucky in 1997.
Three life sentences, without parole, is also how long Clarence Aaron will be in jail -- because he introduced two drug dealers, so that one could buy cocaine from the other.
It happened in 1993, when Aaron was 23 and a junior at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La.
Aaron grew up in Mobile, Ala., where several of his high school acquaintances ran a drug ring. His grandfather, who had been paying to support him in school, had recently passed away when his high school football teammate, a drug dealer named Robert Hines, approached Aaron and asked if he knew where his boss, Marion Teano Watts, could score cocaine.
Aaron introduced them to a dealer in Louisiana, Gary Chisholm, who sold them 9 kilos of cocaine. A later attempt to buy 15 kilos was thwarted when the money was stolen.
Aaron got $1,500 for introducing the dealers.
In January 1993, after discovering that his apartment in Baton Rouge had been searched by the FBI, Aaron turned himself in and was charged with conspiracy to possess a controlled substance with the intent to distribute, possession of a controlled substance with the intent to distribute, and attempt to possess a controlled substance with intent to distribute.
He was released on bond and passed random drug tests for almost eight months.
He went on trial in August and was convicted on the three charges -- possession, conspiracy and attempted possession -- with the intent to distribute 24 kilos of crack cocaine.
That was 15 years ago, when Aaron was 24. He has been in prison ever since. He's 39 years old now, and he will die in prison.
Aaron's five co-conspirators, including the drug ring's kingpin, Watts, were arrested before him and cut deals with federal prosecutors to testify against Aaron in exchange for reduced sentences.
"The entire testimony was based upon what is commonly called 'snitches' or cooperating individuals -- people that have been arrested and prosecuted for drug crimes who were seeking to have their sentences reduced by cooperating," said lawyer Dennis Knizley, who defended Aaron at his trial in 1993.
"They were contending that Clarence was involved in drugs with them," Knizley said. "The biggest problem in using cooperating individuals is that, one, they have a strained motive to not be totally honest on the witness stand. Second, it is simply their words."
There was no physical evidence, no drugs, presented at Aaron's trial.
Watts, who testified he was "a major crack cocaine distributor" who had made more than a million dollars dealing drugs and had six people working for him, was sentenced to 14 years in exchange for his cooperation.
He served seven years and 10 months and was released on April 28, 2000.
Robert Hines, Aaron's childhood friend who asked him to set up the deal, got 10 years, but he served only four years and four months. Two others served less than five years.
Gary Chisholm, the Baton Rouge dealer, was also sentenced to life, but his sentence was reduced to 24 years, 4 months. His release is expected on April 25, 2014.
Aaron won't be released.
"Aaron was the lowest man on the totem pole and he got the worst sentence," said David Borden, executive director of Stop the Drug War, a Washington-based group that has pushed for Aaron's release.
On average, Aaron's co-conspirators, career drug dealers who knew better how to work the system, will spend about eight years in prison.
But Clarence Aaron, once a high school and college football player, a church-going member of the Masons, will grow old and die behind bars.
The system "does not function truly on facts and does not rank the level of the severity of criminal involvement top to bottom [when dealing] with people," Borden said. "Their sentences present priorities not equal to the moral truth of the situation."
Aaron's attempts to get out of prison have all been unsuccessful.
Congress passed a "safety valve" one year after Aaron was sentenced that exempted first-time non-violent offenders from being punished according to mandatory sentencing guidelines. The law was not retroactive.
His 1996 appeal failed, as have several bids to have his sentence reduced.
His only hope now is that a president will commute his sentence.
Aaron petitioned President Bush for clemency, asking him to commute his sentence and set him free. If Bush decides to do so, Aaron will have served 15 years, more than double that of the Mobile crack ring's kingpin.
For now, Aaron sits waiting in a high-security Florida federal penitentiary, hoping for the best.
Clarence Aaron was a college boy from Mobile, Ala., when he introduced two drug dealers to each other -- the mistake that got him three concurrent life sentences in a high-security federal prison.
But Aaron didn't grow up destined to be a criminal.
He told his story in a declaration to the court filed earlier this year with a motion to be resentenced:
He said his father was out of work and in poor health during his childhood in a Mobile housing project, and his mother worked as a maid and nanny to support the family.
But when he was 10, his parents sent him to live with his grandfather in a middle-class neighborhood so that he could avoid the trouble of the projects and go to better schools.
His grandfather taught him about responsiblity and getting a good education. He told Aaron that he wanted him to go to college. Aaron attended church regularly and was close to his pastor, the Rev. George McNeil, with whom he had conversations about the Bible.
He played high school football, basketball and ran track. He became a member of the Masonic Order, like his grandfather, in 1988.
When his grandfather -- Aaron called him his best friend in his declaration to the court -- died from prostate cancer in 1991, Aaron lost both a mentor and his financial support.
Desperate to stay in school, he made what he calls "the biggest mistake of my life," and agreed to help Robert Hines and Marion Teano Watts buy cocaine.
"I am ashamed that I had any involvement with cocaine," Aaron said in his declaration. "I am just grateful my grandfather was not alive to see my disgraceful behavior."
Aaron had never been arrested before, and this was his first and only brush with the law.
How does a guy like that get life times three?
Aaron was sentenced according to guidelines Congress passed at the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s. The laws mandate sentences based on the quantity of drugs involved in a crime and have led to an explosion in the U.S. prison population, as low-level non-violent drug offenders are given lengthy prison sentences.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance Network, 80 percent of the increased number of federal prisoners between 1985 and 1995 were convicted of drug crimes.
Aaron was involved in two drug buys. The first deal involved 9 kilos of cocaine. The second, which never actually happened because thieves stole the money, was a 15-kilo deal. Since the buyer was planning to turn that cocaine into crack, Aaron was sentenced for conspiracy to distribute 24 kilos of crack.
"By virtue of going to trial and the quantity that was involved under the sentencing guidelines, Clarence got these three life terms. It's a paradigmatic case of the injustice of mandatory minimums," said Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and one-time counsel for the House Committee on the Judiciary, the group that created the mandatory minimum laws.
"It was all politics. There was a desire to go back to the public and be able to say we're cracking down. We're getting tough. We're punishing dope dealers. We're sending a message to the dope dealers that they're going to be tracked down and sent away to prison for a long time," Sterling said.
Advocates of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws say that they're a response to judicial discretion gone haywire and that harsh punishments for drug dealers are needed to keep the innocent safe.
"Drug dealing is inextricably linked with violence in every direction," said James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. "The way you deter people from becoming involved in that kind of activity is to make it very clear to them that there are going to be consequences for their illegal activities."
People living in poorer neighborhoods deserve the same protection from crime and violence that those living in wealthier neighborhoods expect, he said.
"Generally speaking, people who deal in drugs are dealing in violence, both in the sense that violence is commonplace in their business -- it takes violence to get the money to buy their products -- and once under the influence of their products people tend to do more violence," Pasco said.
Other factors also influenced Aaron's sentencing.
The government decided to prosecute Aaron for a crack conspiracy, not cocaine possession, because crack was considered more dangerous than powder cocaine and carried heftier punishments during the crack epidemic
Aaron was also sentenced as a "manager or supervisor" of the crack ring and for pleading not guilty and not accepting responsibility for his actions.
How did a man whose role in the so-called conspiracy was to introduce two drug dealers and go with them to pick up drugs wind up being pegged as a ringleader?
Aaron's supporters blame the "snitches."
"So many times it is the race to the courthouse," said Dennis Knizley, Aaron's defense lawyer at his 1993 trial. "The first one there gets on board to cooperate against his sometimes lifelong friends, sometimes family members, and that's who gets the deal -- the first one to the courthouse."
Aaron's five co-conspirators, career drug dealers, agreed to testify in the cases against the others in exchange for reduced sentences. They will have spent an average of eight years in prison for their role in the deals.
Aaron did not testify against the others. He said he was told that if he didn't cooperate, he couldn't plead guilty. He pleaded not guilty, and he was convicted. Now he is 39, he's been in prison for 15 years, and he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Unlike the men who testified against him, like ring leader Marion Teano Watts who told the jury at Aaron's trial that he had made over a million dollars selling crack, Aaron had no history of drug involvement before the trial.
Knizley said that if he had the case to try again, he would have to stick by his client and plead not guilty, even though cooperation might have gotten him less prison time.
"Clarence said he was not guilty, and if my client tells me he's not guilty I'm not going to twist his arm or pressure him into saying something that's not true," Knizley said.
In September, a federal judge denied Aaron's motion to have his sentence reduced based on a November 2007 change to the crack guidelines -- Aaron's unexpected last shot at freedom through the legal system. Now his only hope is a presidential pardon.
Clarence Aaron's road has been long.
Sentenced to three concurrent life terms in prison for introducing two drug dealers in 1993, he has spent the last 15 years in high-security federal prison. He is 39 years old and he will spend the rest of his life in prison -- unless the president of the United States commutes his sentence.
A junior at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., Aaron was convicted of conspiracy to distribute 24 kilos of crack cocaine in 1993. He refused to plead guilty and to testify against his co-conspirators. His partners, career drug dealers, flipped on him and testified against him at his trial.
Mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines on crack charges were harsh, and he was sentenced to three terms of life in prison. In 1996, a court denied his appeal.
Aaron tried to get the federal court to re-sentence him this year based on changes to the drug laws in 2007 that made some sentences less harsh, but the judge ruled there was nothing that could be done.
The amount of drugs involved was just too great, and the changes in the law didn't apply to Aaron, even if the result seemed unfair.
His legal avenues are exhausted. Now his only hope of ever walking out of the federal prison in Coleman, Fla., is a grant of clemency from the president.
Aaron has had an application in with the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney since 2001. The office reviews clemency applications -- for pardons and sentence commutations of federal convicts -- and makes recommendations to the president.
The Justice Department does not comment on pending cases. But Aaron's chances don't look good.
During his time in office, President Bush has received almost 8,000 petitions for commutation from federal convicts.
He has granted eight.
One was his friend and Vice President Dick Cheney's aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was convicted of obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements concerning the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson. The Pardon Attorney's office said Libby did not apply.
Bush commuted the sentences of non-violent drug offenders John Edward Forte of North Brunswick, N.J., and James Russell Harris of Detroit in November in his first round of clemency actions since March.
The other five whose sentences were commuted were also jailed for drug-related crimes.
Bush has used his power to grant reprieves and pardons less frequently than his predecessors in the White House. Former President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 61 federal convicts and pardoned 396.
One of the felons on Clinton's list was Dorothy Gaines, who, like Aaron, was convicted on drug conspiracy charges. She was released on Dec. 22, 2000, and now does public speaking engagements on mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
In addition to his eight sentence commutations, Bush has pardoned 157 convicts, including 14 last month.
Bush is expected to make additional decisions on pardons and sentence commutations before he leaves office in January. Decisions on petitions that aren't reviewed and decided upon before the transfer of power will be made by the Obama administration.
"Clarence Aaron's life without parole sentence is exactly the sort of abusive punishment [that] the presidential pardon was designed to redress," said Debra Saunders, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who has been writing about Aaron's case in her column for several years.
"When the feds put away drug kingpins for long terms, the system works. But when they free two kingpins and put a nonviolent low-level novice behind bars for the rest of his young life, I believe President Bush's sense of justice and compassion will compel him to free Clarence Aaron," she said.
Eric Sterling, former counsel for the House Committee on Judicial Affairs and president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, said that drug offenders deserve punishment, but agrees that in the case of Clarence Aaron, the president would be right to commute Aaron's sentence.
"He's been in 15 years. Before the mandatory minimums were enacted, the maximum you could get under the federal controlled substances act was 15 years unless you were convicted of the kingpin statute ....
"He has served enough time. Justice is done."
Aaron wrote in a declaration to the court this year when he sought a resentencing that he regrets his decision to participate in the drug deal, and that he has accepted responsibility for his actions.
"Every day I wake up I have to deal with my reality. Those years ago, I made a horribly selfish, foolish and wrong decision that I am truly sorry for. I so regret all the hurt and damage I have caused others through my transgression," Aaron wrote.
"One of my life goals is to be the best person I can be. I want to be the best son, uncle, friend and citizen I can be. As I sit here now and reflect on my current plight, I feel the growth, maturity and strength that my experience in prison has, in God's loving hands, brought about in me. I just pray for a second chance to be a productive citizen."
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