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November 29, 2007 - San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Column: Free Clarence Aaron

By Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Is there any mercy in America for Clarence Aaron? Aaron has been on the wrong end of a gross miscarriage of justice, yet somehow, few voices will speak for him.

In 1992 at age 23, Aaron broke the law. While he was a senior at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., he became a go-between for two drug dealers for two deals; one deal didn't happen, the other involved 9 kilograms of cocaine. He was paid $1,500.

Federal prosecutors in Alabama honed in on the dealers. Eventually they charged six individuals for the deals, including Aaron.

Oddly, having no criminal record, Aaron found himself at a distinct disadvantage. He didn't have the drug-trade savvy that could have instructed him in how to trade information on others in order to win short time in prison.

And Aaron didn't know that fighting prosecutors can deliver a longer sentence than dealing drugs.

So he screwed up again -- he pleaded not guilty and lied during his trial.

All of the other five co-conspirators received shorter sentence than Aaron.

The kingpin, who admitted having made more than a million dollars selling crack, served less than eight years. The friend who lured Aaron into the deal had a criminal record; he and two other co-conspirators served less than five years in prison. They garnered shorter sentences by pleading guilty and testifying against Aaron.

Aaron's sentence for a first-time nonviolent drug offense: Life without parole, actually three life sentences. The feds had managed to inflate Aaron's sentence by charging him with dealing more than 23 grams of crack cocaine -- even though, as the 1999 PBS Frontline documentary "Snitch" reported, no physical evidence of the drugs was presented in court.

Also, the second 15- kilogram deal never happened, and one dealer bought powder not crack, which carries a longer sentence than powder cocaine from the other, but the crack charge stuck because the buyer converted the power into crack.

Only one other co-conspirator is still in prison, and he too failed to cut a deal.

J. Don Foster, the U.S. Attorney whose office prosecuted Aaron, told Frontline, "You know, the tendency to feel sorry for him is in relation to these other people that did cooperate and that did help themselves and got less time. And even though they were perhaps guiltier or more culpable, they got less because they helped solve the case. They helped to bring everybody to justice.

And the one person or two -- I think there were two that went to trial in that case -- that didn't, you know, suffer the results or the consequences of the arrogance of thinking that you're -- you're going to beat this, that 'I'm too good. I'm too good to take a deal.' "

That's a stark, if unintended, admission that some prosecutors think crossing them is a worse crime than being a drug kingpin.

Aaron, now 38, has a spotless disciplinary record, yet he will live in prison until he dies -- unless President Bush commutes his sentence.

In July, the president commuted the 30-month prison sentence of former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby because it was "excessive." Hello -- Clarence Aaron's sentence is excessive, squared.

After 14 years in prison, Aaron wrote in an update to his presidential commutation petition that he regrets "the weakness that led me to get involved in a drug deal." And: "From the day I entered the prison door, I made a promise to myself that I would meet the trials of life head on, and I have become a stronger person behind these walls."

His prison work record is exemplary. He has a "clear conduct" record. He has continued his education. In 2005, two wardens recommended that Aaron be transferred to a lower security facility.

Newspapers frequently report stories about repeat violent offenders who game the system, get out of prison and hurt more innocent people. Let me be clear:

Violent repeat offenders should serve hard time, and enjoy no breaks. But life without parole for a nonviolent first-time offense is an outrage.

And it doesn't make America safer - not when the kingpins get out of prison sooner, because, to paraphrase Foster, they don't act arrogant.

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