Clarence Aaron and the Broken Clemency System

The DOJ's Office of the Pardon Attorney is under scrutiny because of this high-profile case.

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In 1993 Clarence Aaron, a first-time, nonviolent drug offender, was sentenced to serve three life sentences for abetting a drug conspiracy, although it was his first criminal offense and he was not the buyer, seller or supplier of the drugs. Of all those convicted in the case, Aaron received the stiffest sentence.

According to a ProPublica investigative report of his case co-published May 13 with the Washington Post, the prosecutor's office and the sentencing judge supported an immediate commutation for Aaron, but the George W. Bush administration never knew the full extent of their views, which were compiled in a confidential U.S. Department of Justice review. As a result, Aaron remains in prison, and the work of the DOJ's Office of the Pardon Attorney is under scrutiny.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit that supports fair and proportionate sentencing laws, hosted an event featuring Aaron's mother and a former OPA attorney at Washington, D.C.'s National Press club on Thursday to discuss what many see as an egregious mishandling of the case.

In FAMM's press release summarizing the event, Mrs. Aaron is quoted as saying, "I was devastated when I read the article about Clarence and how his commutation petition was mishandled. I could not believe it. How could a person do that to a human being? It could have been his child."

Sam Morison, a longtime staff attorney at the OPA, worked on Aaron's case before the pardon attorney in a move Morison described as "highly unusual," took the case away from him. He described what he said were institutional problems that have led to the approval of just 12 commutations total, with more than 11,300 rejections during the Obama and Bush administrations, including Aaron's.

Pro Publica's Dafna Linze, who reported on Aaron's case, said she learned from her investigation that more than 7,000 commutation requests have been denied over the last four years, at the rate of seven petitions per day. She also noted that she was disturbed by the racial bias that seems to determine who receives a favorable recommendation.

"White applicants are four times as likely as minorities to receive a commutation, and that was after we weighed for all other relevant factors," she said. "What struck me was that this was contemporary race disparity happening within the Justice Department itself. If this were occurring at a state or local government level, the Justice Department would probably investigate."

FAMM has asked for a Senate Department Investigation into the Office of the Pardon Attorney, and on Tuesday, Rep. John Conyers called for Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the "alleged mishandling" of the Aaron case. If the allegations in the Pro Publica story are true, he said, the case merits "immediate investigation."

Read more at the Washington Post, Main Justice and FAMM.

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