Man Serving Three Life Terms for Drug Deal Pins Hopes on Clemency From Obama

This is a follow-up to a three-part series that took a look at the case of Clarence Aaron, a one-time college student whose involvement in a 1993 cocaine deal got him three life sentences in federal prison.

Click here to read Part One.

Click here to read Part Two.

Click here to read Part Three.

For Clarence Aaron, all that has changed is the president’s name. George W. Bush can no longer grant him clemency. Now he’s pinning his hopes on Barack Obama — and there just might be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

Aaron was a 23-year-old junior at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., in 1993 when he was convicted of conspiracy to distribute 24 kilos of crack cocaine. He refused to testify against his co-conspirators in a plea deal — but his partners, career drug dealers, flipped on him and testified against him at his trial.

Mandatory federal minimum sentencing guidelines on crack charges were harsh, and Aaron was sentenced to three concurrent sentences of life in prison. He lost an appeal in 1996, and his efforts to get his sentence reduced have failed.

Now Aaron’s only hope of ever walking out of prison lies in the power of the president of the United States to grant clemency.

President Bush denied Aaron’s petition just before he left office in January. But Aaron’s supporters hope President Obama will give him a chance. And statements by Obama and the Justice Department are giving them reason to be optimistic.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama called on Congress to revisit sentencing guidelines that were established during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and that mete out longer prison sentences for crack cocaine than powdered cocaine. The result has been a prison system teeming with low-level drug offenders.

“Under current law, mere possession of five grams of crack — the weight of five packets of sweetener — carries the same sentence as distribution of half a kilogram of powder — or 500 packets of sweetener,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chaired a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs in April.

Furthermore, Durbin said, more than 81 percent of those convicted for crack offenses in 2007 were African-American, although only about 25 percent of crack cocaine users are African Americans.

At the hearing, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer announced that the Justice Department, for the first time, was endorsing the elimination of the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

“A growing number of citizens view it as fundamentally unfair,” Breuer said.

Eric Sterling, former counsel for the House Committee on Judicial Affairs and president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, attended the April hearing and recently told “They are thinking very differently about this offense and how it should be punished.

“The quantities [that dictate sentencing] are a road map to prosecutors that is the wrong road map, and therefore we get so many of these low-level cases.”

“The federal focus,” he said, “should be on the highest level traffickers exclusively and … they shouldn’t be doing any local, neighborhood-type cases.’

Busting local small-time dealers won’t make a dent in the actual problem, Sterling said. “You’ve got to explain to them that if they want to get the crack house out of their neighborhood, they’ve got to stop the cocaine coming in from Colombia.”

While Congress works on reform, Sterling said he thinks Obama will use his power to pardon small-time drug offenders serving harsh sentences, and he thinks Aaron stands a chance — although it’s unlikely to happen soon.

“It’s clear that President Obama can juggle a lot of balls at once, and I think that this is one that he and his legal and political advisers can handle and actually want to handle,” Sterling said.

“I think they will want the time to review the petitions and do their own due diligence about Clarence’s crime, check it out with the judge, review his prison record, and I suspect that his will not be the only commutation of sentence that will be announced.”

Others have been lobbying for Aaron’s release, as well. His crime and prosecution were profiled in a PBS documentary, “Snitch,” and the nonprofit November Coalition, which advocates for ending unjust drug convictions, has been monitoring his case.

Debra Saunders, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who has lobbied for Aaron’s release and written about in him several columns, said she thinks Aaron stands a chance with Obama in the White House.

“Clarence’s hope for a commutation should be more likely to be rewarded by Barack Obama, who has been critical of the war on drugs,” she said.

But Saunders was critical of the president’s actions so far.

“His actions on this issue have been lax. He has yet to issue a single pardon or commutation,” she said. “So maybe Obama will be more like Bush than expected.”

Aaron’s attorney said he intends to file another clemency petition, though he must wait a year under the rules of the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney.

Sterling, meanwhile, is optimistic that Aaron ultimately will regain his freedom.

“As you continue to be aware of these cases, the sentence that Clarence Aaron got for his conduct is so outrageous,” he said. “It is a travesty of justice and it urgently should be addressed by the president.”