Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Obama White House looking at Clarence Aaron commutation petition (updated Jul 19, 10:51 am EDST)

Dafna Linzer writes in The Washington Post (online July 18 and on p.A3 in July 19 print edition), and ProPublica, that the Obama White House is reviewing Clarence Aaron's petition for a commutation of sentence.

Clarence Aaron was a college football player whose childhood friends recruited to arrange to buy cocaine for their Mobile, Alabama crack ring. Aaron played a minor role, did not plead guilty, and at trial the jury hung. The government tried him a second time and he was convicted. The quantity that the government witnesses said was involved triggered, under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, three concurrent life sentences! Parole was abolished in federal criminal cases after Nov. 1, 1987.

In 1999, film-maker Ofra Bikel, working with PBS FRONTLINE, told the story of how mandatory minimum sentences encourage defendants to inform on their friends or family to avoid long prison terms. The program, "Snitch," aired in January 1999. Bikel was able to get into federal prison to interview Clarence Aaron. Her documentary included the moving anguish of his parents and how one of Clarence's cousins testified against him. The brilliant climax of the documentary was the interview of Willie Jordan, one of the jurors at Aaron's trial.

Did they get the sentence they deserved?

Well, you know, I meant to look in the paper later to see what kind of sentence they served and somehow or other I missed it. And I never did know what kind of sentence they got.

What did you think they should get?

... Well, I wouldn't have thought of a large number of years, no. Just probably a short sentence. Now what a short sentence is I don't know, three to five years, maybe something like that ... .

Clarence Aaron got life.


Three life concurrent sentences.

Three concurrent life sentences. There's no hope of parole?


Well, that's more than I thought it would be. Well, see, I had no idea. ... I'm surprised at that, I really am, that [he got] that harsh a sentence.

Does it sadden you?

Yeah, it does, somewhat, it sure does. It sure does. We weren't told anything about [sentencing] guidelines. And, of course, the judge, I guess, did the sentencing.

Jurors are not supposed to know about sentences; they are just supposed to determine guilt or innocence.

That's right. ...

Do you think the verdict might have come out different if you had known the sentences the defendants were facing?

It might have been a little tougher, but the evidence was such that I don't think we could have had any other conclusion other than guilty. ...

How do you feel about the sentence?

I wish I didn't know now that they'd got life.

Clarence's photograph, sitting in prison, became the visual shorthand for the entire movie.

On May 13, Dafna Linzer reported that the Pardon Attorney in the Department of Justice did not fully disclose to President George W. Bush the position of the prosecutor and the trial judge in Clarence Aaron's case regarding commutation of sentence, in a blockbuster front page story in The Washington Post. Later that month, U.S. Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) wrote to President Obama asking him to commute Aaron's life sentence.

Bikel's documentary also featured the case of Dorothy Gaines, a mother of three whose boyfriend was a crack addict. A raid of Gaines' home yielded nothing. The State of Alabama dropped charges against her. But the federal government used the informants against her, she went to trial, and was sentenced to over 20 years. In December 2000, President Clinton commuted her sentence and reunited her with her family.

"Snitch" included interviews with U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL), former U.S. Attorney in Alabama. Sessions, perhaps as a consequence of his depiction in "Snitch," became the key Senator in getting partial reform of the crack cocaine mandatory minimum quantity triggers through the Congress. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was signed by President Obama in August 2010. (I played a major role both in writing the original 1986 crack law (secs. 1002 and 1302 of P.L. 99-570), and in achieving the 2010 reform. In 2005, I wrote the model for section 4 of the Fair Sentencing Act, which increased the monetary penalties for major drug trafficking violations, in order to encourage law and order Members of Congress to support the bill.)

Please write to President Obama and simply ask him to grant Clarence Aaron's petition for commutation of sentence, and tweet #FreeClarenceAaron.

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