What it takes to free a man

<p>Clarence Aaron in a family photo with his mother Linda Aaron-McNeil</p>

Clarence Aaron in a family photo with his mother Linda Aaron-McNeil

Courtesy of the family of Clarence Aaron

There will be a desire to declare that justice was done Thursday when President Obama finally ordered Clarence Aaron freed from prison. And in a way it was.

Aaron had been a college football star, a math whiz, an admired young man. Then he was in prison garb reviewing accounts for the factory of a federal penitentiary.

He said good bye 20 years ago to his mother, to his community, to his future when he was sentenced to three consecutive life terms for a minor role in a drug deal.

He grew into manhood behind bars and became what the criminal justice system rewards: a “perfect inmate” with a flawless record who attends church, racks up degrees and is a star worker.   

His sentence was always unjust–Aaron wasn’t the buyer, the seller or the user of any drugs–and Obama’s decision to put an end to the prospect of incarceration till death rights that tragic wrong.

But it does nothing to address the far greater offense that Aaron and thousands like him fell victim to: the Justice Department’s pardon office and, more precisely, U.S. pardon attorney Ronald Rodgers.

It took decades, a small army of advocates and an investigative series, to free Aaron. Attorneys at white shoe law firms, clemency experts, former prosecutors, a federal judge, lobbyists, clergy, lawmakers, and White House lawyers were all in his corner.

But they were no match for Rodgers, a former military judge who prosecuted drug crimes when the Justice Department was eager to make examples of young black men.

As pardon attorney, Rodgers deliberately misled the president of the United States–as an investigative series I wrote showed and a subsequent inspector-general’s report confirmed–when he withheld facts in Aaron’s case.

Aaron, now 43, will forever be grateful to Obama for signing the warrant to set him free. But that gratitude could easily have fallen on former President George W. Bush whose White House sought repeatedly to secure a favorable recommendation from Rodgers for Aaron’s release.

Instead, at Rodgers’ urging, Bush denied Aaron’s initial request five years ago, on Dec. 23rd, 2008. Had Rodgers been interested in sharing rather than concealing facts–in granting, rather than withholding, mercy–Aaron could have had his own family by now.   

Rodgers’ actions remained hidden from the White House until this story in 2011. The inspector-general for the Justice Department wrote that Rodgers’ conduct in the case “fell substantially short of the high standards expected of Department of Justice employees and the duty he owed the President of the United States.” He was forced to recuse himself from a new review of the case. But, remarkably, Rodgers wasn’t fired.

Under his continued leadership, more than 5,000 other inmates have been denied a second chance during Obama’s presidency. Another 1,333 ex-felons have had their pardon requests turned down.

A statistical review of the selection process revealed that white applicants are nearly four times as likely to be pardoned than all minorities combined. The department says Rodgers spends time personally reviewing every single case. That, of course, is not possible.  

Aaron was among eight federal inmates ordered released by Obama Thursday. He was not the only one among the small group with a committed legal team, or whose unjust sentencing garnered public support and media attention.

Because that is what it takes, more often than not, to pry open the narrowest crack in a system that locks up nonviolent, first-time offenders forever.

This is not what the Founding Fathers envisioned when they fought over, and then enshrined, the president’s enormous power to forgive. It is the president’s sole unfettered authority and no one was supposed to interfere with it.

But Rodgers is skilled. Perhaps just to flex his muscles once more, Aaron’s commutation won’t take effect until April 17th, 2014. The sentencing judge in his case, appointed to the bench by former President Ronald Reagan, had recommended five years ago that Aaron’s sentence be immediately commuted to time served.

But because Rodgers thinks he knows better, Aaron will suffer through one more Christmas inside the walls of Talladega prison, a place where everyone knows he no longer belongs.

In the executive grant of clemency, Obama wrote that “the ends of justice do not require the said Clarence Aaron to remain confined for the rest of his life.”

In a separate statement Thursday, Obama said that “commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness.  But it must not be the last.” He called on Congress to work on sentencing reform. But he need not call on anyone to undo the unjust sentences handed down to so many, and which disproportionately effect minorities, in a country addicted to incarceration.  

Obama has spoken powerfully of second chances in the past. His attorney general, Eric Holder, said recently that there is still time for this administration to act boldly on pardons. Obama’s actions Thursday, releasing two women and six men, will be a test for his presidency, for Rodgers, for the pardon power and for what kind of forgiveness Americans want to bestow on one another.

Dafna Linzer is the author of “Shades of Mercy,” an investigative series on presidential pardons, and is managing editor of msnbc.com


All In with Chris Hayes, 12/19/13, 10:31 PM ET

The case of Clarence Aaron

Chris Hayes talks with MSNBC Digital managing editor Dafna Linzer about the president’s decision to commute the life sentence of Clarence Aaron.
Chris Hayes talks with MSNBC Digital managing editor Dafna Linzer about the president’s decision to commute the life sentence of Clarence Aaron.