Freed prisoner of the drug war

MOBILE, Ala. — “That situation didn’t define who I was,” Clarence Aaron, 45, told a group gathered for a weekend celebration at the Mobile high school he attended about two decades ago. When, at age 24, he found himself in federal prison in 1993 — after he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug offense — he felt what he called the “stigma.” But the former LeFlore High varsity football star refused to give in to the bitterness of receiving a life sentence while career drug dealers received decades less time. He had a plan: Follow the rules. Work hard. Even in maximum security, be the best person he could be.

“Effort only releases reward when one refuses to quit,” Aaron said. “You never see a full reward until it’s over.” His journey began to end in December, when President Barack Obama commuted Aaron’s barbaric sentence. On April 17, his ankle bracelet came off.

On April 26, Aaron held the celebration to thank his many supporters. Dorothy Gaines, a Mobile grandmother sentenced to more than 19 years after damning testimony from her dealer boyfriend, won a presidential commutation from President Bill Clinton in 2000. She railed against the injustice of federal mandatory minimum sentences.

Behind Aaron sat his cousin Aaron Martin, who served as a chief promotions officer, attorney, Margaret Colgate Love, and mother, Linda, who never gave up hope that her son would come home. Then there was an uncle whose son had testified against Aaron.

The next day, Aaron tells me that not everyone was on his side during his years in the justice system.

Former U.S. Attorney Deborah J. Rhodes supported a commutation in 2008. Nonetheless, she dismissed Aaron’s insistence that he was a cash-strapped student who stumbled into introducing a kingpin to a drug supplier. The court, she argued, believed he had been an organizer or manager.

So for two hours, we went over the record. I wanted to know what really happened.

Aaron’s commutation petition tells this story. When he was 10, Aaron’s parents sent their eldest son away from the housing project where they lived to be raised by his grandfather in the working-class Toulminville neighborhood. The plan paid off. Aaron became the first member of the family to go to college.

When his grandfather died of cancer in 1991, Aaron was a junior at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There was a family fight over the estate. In 1992, Aaron was broke and angry. He made the biggest mistake of his young life.

A friend from high school approached Aaron to see whether he knew of a cocaine connection in Baton Rouge. A fellow student’s brother was a supplier. Thus, Aaron — a student with no arrests and an athlete who, according to the Department of Justice, had “no history of using drugs” — introduced Mobile’s Marion Teano Watts to Louisiana’s Gary Chisholm.

Watts offered $200,000 for a 9-kilogram deal in June. According to court documents, Aaron was paid $1,500.

Aaron flew to Houston to help facilitate a second, larger trade. He told me it was the first time he had ever flown. Armed robbers grabbed the money while Aaron was in the hotel bar making a phone call. Who stole the money? “It became a big issue,” Aaron told me. He realized, “I don’t know who I can trust.” That, said Aaron, finished his short stint in the drug trade.

He was arrested six months later because, according to the Justice Department, authorities had been investigating Watts since 1991. They charged Aaron for the two deals — 9 kilograms of crack for the first deal, 15 kilograms for the sale that never happened.

Even though he was guilty, Aaron thought he could beat the rap. His first trial ended in a mistrial. In a second trial, with Chisholm as a co-defendant, a jury found both men guilty. Chisholm also was sentenced to life but later was resentenced to 24 years.

So how did the college student with no record get more time than the full-time drug peddlers? Watts, the kingpin who admitted that he was a “major crack cocaine distributor” and made over $1 million in the trade, knew enough to turn informant. He was sentenced to 14 years but served less than eight. His underlings, also informants, served less or no time.

Make no mistake; Aaron was guilty and deserved to go to prison. But there is no justice in letting career criminals out in order to put amateurs away for life. There is little justice in a system that allowed prosecutors to charge a defendant for crack, which carries a stiffer sentence than powder cocaine, even though powder changed hands.

Worse, the feds were able to convict Aaron for a deal that never happened. Worst of all, they didn’t have to produce cocaine or other physical evidence to win a conspiracy conviction. All they had to do was get savvier drug purveyors, usually not the most credible people, to say Aaron was an organizer.

Once the verdict was in, a judge had little say in what his sentence would be. The prosecutor chose the punishment by determining the amount of drugs with which to charge him. A federal formula spewed out a number of years to serve, increased because he lied on the stand, and a college kid who made a big mistake lost his future, barring an act of executive clemency.

I do not believe this travesty would have happened to a white college student.

A current U.S. attorney in Alabama, Kenyen R. Brown, told me Aaron most likely would receive “a quite different sentence” if he were tried today. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, signed by Obama, reduced the disparity of sentences for crack versus powder cocaine sentences. Brown approves, as he personally considered the old crack penalties to be “draconian.”

But Brown agrees with other prosecutors who maintain that because Aaron perjured himself, he was more culpable than Watts and company. They don’t realize it, but what these prosecutors really are saying is that not submitting to federal prosecutors to make their jobs easier is a bigger offense than dealing large quantities of drugs.

Obama has urged Congress to reform federal mandatory minimums. That’s great. But he doesn’t have to wait for Congress. He can tell Attorney General Eric Holder to send a simple message to every U.S. attorney in the land: Don’t reward drug dealers for snitching on girlfriends and gofers. Don’t put low-level offenders away for decades more than their crime bosses. Go after the big fish, or don’t go fishing.

Email Debra J. Saunders at

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