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How Many Clemency Requests Are Botched? U.S. Pardon Attorney Excluded Info That Could Have Set One Man Free

An investigation into one man's clemency request exposes the Pardon Attorney for failing to report crucial information that may have set an unjustly sentenced Black man free.
 
 
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 A version of this story by ProPublica was co-published with The Washington Post.

Clarence Aaron seemed to be especially deserving of a federal commutation, an immediate release from prison granted by the president of the United States.

At 24, he was sentenced to three life terms for his role in a cocaine deal, even though 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.

For those reasoncs, his case for early release was championed by lawmakers and civil rights activists, and taken up by the media, from  PBS to Fox News

And, ultimately, the prosecutor’s office and the sentencing judge supported an immediate commutation for Aaron.

Yet the George W. Bush administration, in its final year in office, never knew the full extent of their views, which were compiled in a confidential Justice Department review, and Aaron’s application was denied, according to  an examination of the case by ProPublica based on interviews with participants and internal records. 

That Aaron joined the long line of rejected applicants illuminates the extraordinary, secretive powers wielded by the  Office of the Pardon Attorney, the branch of the Justice Department that reviews commutation requests. Records show that Ronald Rodgers, the current pardon attorney, left out critical information in recommending that the White House deny Aaron’s application. In a confidential note to a White House lawyer, Rodgers failed to accurately convey the views of the prosecutor and judge and did not disclose that they had advocated for Aaron’s immediate commutation.

Kenneth Lee, the lawyer who shepherded Aaron’s case on behalf of the White House, was aghast when ProPublica provided him with original statements from the judge and prosecutor to compare with Rodgers’s summary. Had he read the statements at the time, Lee said, he would have urged Bush to commute Aaron’s sentence. 

“This case was such a close call,” Lee said. “We had been  asking the pardons office to reconsider it all year. We made clear we were interested in this case.”

The work of the pardon office has come under heightened scrutiny since December, when    ProPublica and The Washington Post published stories showing that, from 2001 to 2008, white applicants were nearly four times as likely to receive presidential pardons as minorities. The pardon office, which recommends applicants to the White House, is reviewing a new application from Aaron. Without a commutation, he will die in prison. 

Through the Justice Department, Rodgers declined repeated requests for an interview, and the department itself declined to comment on any aspect of the Aaron case, citing “privacy and privilege concerns.”

“Every clemency request—whether it be for commutation of sentence or for pardon—is considered carefully and thoroughly by the Office of the Pardon Attorney,” spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said.

Last week, the  American Constitution Society sponsored a panel discussion on Capitol Hill devoted to the pardon issue. President Obama’s former White House counsel Gregory B. Craig said the president could issue an executive order eliminating the pardon office.

“We cannot improve or strengthen the exercise of this power without taking it out of the Department of Justice,” Craig said.

He advocated for a bipartisan review panel that would report directly to the president. 

The number of pardons awarded has declined sharply in the past 30 years, as have commutations. Obama has rejected nearly 3,800 commutation requests from prisoners. He has approved one. Bush commuted the sentences of 11 people, turning down nearly 7,500 applicants.