What it Takes to Free a Man

Post Date: December 20, 2013

(Dafna Linzer, MSNBC) — 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. Read more