Freed Prisoner of the Drug War

Post Date: May 2, 2014

(Debra J. Saunders, SF Gate) — “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 more than 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 I can 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 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 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 the 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 had really happened.

Aaron’s commutation petition tells this story. When he was 10, Aaron’s parents sent their oldest 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. 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 if 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 Justice Department, had “no history of using drugs” – introduced Marion Teano Watts of Mobile to Gary Chisholm of Louisiana.

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 Department of Justice, 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. Read more