Thursday, December 04, 2008

Clemency for Clarence Aaron

Our government shouldn’t be in the business of destroying the potential of a human life for what is, in context, a small transgression. A life sentence without parole for Clarence Aaron, who has already spent fifteen years in prison, is a joke on its own merits. When put in context of the others sentenced as co-conspirators for the same crime, the joke turns tragic.

Aaron’s five co-conspirators, including the drug ring’s kingpin, Watts, were arrested before him and cut deals with federal prosecutors to testify against Aaron in exchange for reduced sentences.

“The entire testimony was based upon what is commonly called ‘snitches’ or cooperating individuals — people that have been arrested and prosecuted for drug crimes who were seeking to have their sentences reduced by cooperating,” said lawyer Dennis Knizley, who defended Aaron at his trial in 1993.

“They were contending that Clarence was involved in drugs with them,” Knizley said. “The biggest problem in using cooperating individuals is that, one, they have a strained motive to not be totally honest on the witness stand. Second, it is simply their words.”

There was no physical evidence, no drugs, presented at Aaron’s trial.

Watts, who testified he was “a major crack cocaine distributor” who had made more than a million dollars dealing drugs and had six people working for him, was sentenced to 14 years in exchange for his cooperation.

He served seven years and 10 months and was released on April 28, 2000.

Robert Hines, Aaron’s childhood friend who asked him to set up the deal, got 10 years, but he served only four years and four months. Two others served less than five years.

Gary Chisholm, the Baton Rouge dealer, was also sentenced to life, but his sentence was reduced to 24 years, 4 months. His release is expected on April 25, 2014.

Aaron won’t be released.

“Aaron was the lowest man on the totem pole and he got the worst sentence,” said David Borden, executive director of Stop the Drug War, a Washington-based group that has pushed for Aaron’s release.

On average, Aaron’s co-conspirators, career drug dealers who knew better how to work the system, will spend about eight years in prison.

But Clarence Aaron, once a high school and college football player, a church-going member of the Masons, will grow old and die behind bars.

I support tough sentences for violent criminals and sexual predators; Aaron is a guy who made a bad decision, who took part in something that he shouldn’t have, and who is paying for it far out of proportion with his actions.

Not every recipient of a presidential pardon deserves the gift. For Aaron it would recognize the hefty price that he has already paid and it would allow him a chance to rebuild his life. That sounds like a pretty worthy cause to me.

Read the story.


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