Clarence Aaron, Doing Life For Nonviolent, First-Time Drug Crime, Freed By President Obama

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Clarence Aaron, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole because he introduced two cocaine dealers and collected all of $1,500 for his troubles, is set to go free after President Barack Obama commuted his sentence yesterday.

Obama also commuted the life sentences of seven other nonviolent drug offenders, calling them victims of an “unfair system” that promoted mandatory sentencing policies that have since been changed.

In 2010, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which brought sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine in line with those for conventional, powdered cocaine crimes.

“This law began to right a decades-old injustice, but for thousands of inmates, it came too late,” Obama said in a White House statement.  “If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”

Aaron’s case had received considerable publicity over the years, after his plea for clemency was turned down by then-President George W. Bush in 2004. At the time, Aaron had been in prison for 10 years.

Bush acted on the recommendation of his chief pardon attorney, former military judge Ronald Rodgers. But last year, the Justice Department’s own inspector general issued a report concluding that Rodgers had withheld key facts from Bush in his recommendation report.

The inspector general ripped Rodgers for letting his report be “colored by his concern ... that the White House might grant Aaron clemency presently and his desire that this not happen."

Aaron was 23 years old and a former college football star when he was sentenced for his role in a drug dealing operation. But Aaron, who had never been convicted of a previous crime, was the lowest man on the totem pole in this particular drug conspiracy, simply setting up a meeting between two big-time dealers.

Both of those men received lesser sentences than Aaron.

"I am guilty of something. I am guilty of hooking up the two parties, and I knew that both parties was in some type of drug activities,” Aaron told an interviewer for the PBS program Frontline. “But about selling drugs, I ain't had nothing to do with that. I thought I shouldn't have got no more even than the minimum of probation, the most boot camp or five years in prison.”

Aaron says he never even saw the nine kilos of cocaine that the government accused him of helping to sell.

“He was just overcome,” Aaron’s attorney, Margaret Love, told the ProPublica news organization who spoke to Aaron after learning of Obama's decision. “We’re very grateful to the president.”

According the a report issued last month by the American Civil Liberties Union, at least 3,200 Americans are now serving life sentences without hope of parole for petty, mostly nonviolent offenses.

SOURCES: ProPublica (2), White House, SFGate, PBS Frontline, The Grio, Wikipedia