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Locked Up for Life, Part One: The Case of Clarence Aaron

This is the first of three stories that look at the case of Clarence Aaron, a one-time college student whose involvement in a 1993 cocaine deal got him three life sentences in federal prison.


Three life sentences, without parole.

That's how long Calvin Smith — part of the notorious Murder Inc. drug gang which terrorized Washington, D.C., in the 1990s — will be in jail for the cold-blooded murder of three people and for dealing drugs.

It's how long Erick John Llorance will be in jail for three holiday-season armed robberies and a shooting in Houston in 2007.

It's how long high school shooter Michael Carneal will be in jail for murdering three girls and injuring five other students while they were standing with their youth prayer group outside Heath High School in Kentucky in 1997.

Three life sentences, without parole, is also how long Clarence Aaron will be in jail — because he introduced two drug dealers, so that one could buy cocaine from the other.

It happened in 1993, when Aaron was 23 and a junior at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La.

Aaron grew up in Mobile, Ala., where several of his high school acquaintances ran a drug ring. His grandfather, who had been paying to support him in school, had recently passed away when his high school football teammate, a drug dealer named Robert Hines, approached Aaron and asked if he knew where his boss, Marion Teano Watts, could score cocaine.

Aaron introduced them to a dealer in Louisiana, Gary Chisholm, who sold them 9 kilos of cocaine. A later attempt to buy 15 kilos was thwarted when the money was stolen.

Aaron got $1,500 for introducing the dealers.

In January 1993, after discovering that his apartment in Baton Rouge had been searched by the FBI, Aaron turned himself in and was charged with conspiracy to possess a controlled substance with the intent to distribute, possession of a controlled substance with the intent to distribute, and attempt to possess a controlled substance with intent to distribute.

He was released on bond and passed random drug tests for almost eight months.

He went on trial in August and was convicted on the three charges — possession, conspiracy and attempted possession — with the intent to distribute 24 kilos of crack cocaine.

That was 15 years ago, when Aaron was 24. He has been in prison ever since. He's 39 years old now, and he will die in prison.

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.

The system "does not function truly on facts and does not rank the level of the severity of criminal involvement top to bottom [when dealing] with people," Borden said. "Their sentences present priorities not equal to the moral truth of the situation."

Aaron's attempts to get out of prison have all been unsuccessful.

Congress passed a "safety valve" one year after Aaron was sentenced that exempted first-time non-violent offenders from being punished according to mandatory sentencing guidelines. The law was not retroactive.

His 1996 appeal failed, as have several bids to have his sentence reduced.

His only hope now is that a president will commute his sentence.

Aaron petitioned President Bush for clemency, asking him to commute his sentence and set him free. If Bush decides to do so, Aaron will have served 15 years, more than double that of the Mobile crack ring's kingpin.

For now, Aaron sits waiting in a high-security Florida federal penitentiary, hoping for the best.