This is the second of three stories that take a 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.
Clarence Aaron was a college boy from Mobile, Ala., when he introduced two drug dealers to each other — the mistake that got him three concurrent life sentences in a high-security federal prison.
But Aaron didn't grow up destined to be a criminal.
He told his story in a declaration to the court filed earlier this year with a motion to be resentenced:
He said his father was out of work and in poor health during his childhood in a Mobile housing project, and his mother worked as a maid and nanny to support the family.
But when he was 10, his parents sent him to live with his grandfather in a middle-class neighborhood so that he could avoid the trouble of the projects and go to better schools.
His grandfather taught him about responsiblity and getting a good education. He told Aaron that he wanted him to go to college. Aaron attended church regularly and was close to his pastor, the Rev. George McNeil, with whom he had conversations about the Bible.
He played high school football, basketball and ran track. He became a member of the Masonic Order, like his grandfather, in 1988.
When his grandfather — Aaron called him his best friend in his declaration to the court — died from prostate cancer in 1991, Aaron lost both a mentor and his financial support.
Desperate to stay in school, he made what he calls "the biggest mistake of my life," and agreed to help Robert Hines and Marion Teano Watts buy cocaine.
"I am ashamed that I had any involvement with cocaine," Aaron said in his declaration. "I am just grateful my grandfather was not alive to see my disgraceful behavior."
Aaron had never been arrested before, and this was his first and only brush with the law.
How does a guy like that get life times three?
Aaron was sentenced according to guidelines Congress passed at the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s. The laws mandate sentences based on the quantity of drugs involved in a crime and have led to an explosion in the U.S. prison population, as low-level non-violent drug offenders are given lengthy prison sentences.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance Network, 80 percent of the increased number of federal prisoners between 1985 and 1995 were convicted of drug crimes.
Aaron was involved in two drug buys. The first deal involved 9 kilos of cocaine. The second, which never actually happened because thieves stole the money, was a 15-kilo deal. Since the buyer was planning to turn that cocaine into crack, Aaron was sentenced for conspiracy to distribute 24 kilos of crack.
"By virtue of going to trial and the quantity that was involved under the sentencing guidelines, Clarence got these three life terms. It’s a paradigmatic case of the injustice of mandatory minimums," said Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and one-time counsel for the House Committee on the Judiciary, the group that created the mandatory minimum laws.
"It was all politics. There was a desire to go back to the public and be able to say we're cracking down. We're getting tough. We're punishing dope dealers. We're sending a message to the dope dealers that they're going to be tracked down and sent away to prison for a long time," Sterling said.
Advocates of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws say that they're a response to judicial discretion gone haywire and that harsh punishments for drug dealers are needed to keep the innocent safe.
"Drug dealing is inextricably linked with violence in every direction," said James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. "The way you deter people from becoming involved in that kind of activity is to make it very clear to them that there are going to be consequences for their illegal activities."
People living in poorer neighborhoods deserve the same protection from crime and violence that those living in wealthier neighborhoods expect, he said.
"Generally speaking, people who deal in drugs are dealing in violence, both in the sense that violence is commonplace in their business — it takes violence to get the money to buy their products — and once under the influence of their products people tend to do more violence," Pasco said.
Other factors also influenced Aaron's sentencing.
The government decided to prosecute Aaron for a crack conspiracy, not cocaine possession, because crack was considered more dangerous than powder cocaine and carried heftier punishments during the crack epidemic
Aaron was also sentenced as a "manager or supervisor" of the crack ring and for pleading not guilty and not accepting responsibility for his actions.
How did a man whose role in the so-called conspiracy was to introduce two drug dealers and go with them to pick up drugs wind up being pegged as a ringleader?
Aaron's supporters blame the "snitches."
"So many times it is the race to the courthouse," said Dennis Knizley, Aaron's defense lawyer at his 1993 trial. "The first one there gets on board to cooperate against his sometimes lifelong friends, sometimes family members, and that's who gets the deal — the first one to the courthouse."
Aaron's five co-conspirators, career drug dealers, agreed to testify in the cases against the others in exchange for reduced sentences. They will have spent an average of eight years in prison for their role in the deals.
Aaron did not testify against the others. He said he was told that if he didn't cooperate, he couldn't plead guilty. He pleaded not guilty, and he was convicted. Now he is 39, he's been in prison for 15 years, and he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Unlike the men who testified against him, like ring leader Marion Teano Watts who told the jury at Aaron's trial that he had made over a million dollars selling crack, Aaron had no history of drug involvement before the trial.
Knizley said that if he had the case to try again, he would have to stick by his client and plead not guilty, even though cooperation might have gotten him less prison time.
"Clarence said he was not guilty, and if my client tells me he's not guilty I'm not going to twist his arm or pressure him into saying something that's not true," Knizley said.
In September, a federal judge denied Aaron's motion to have his sentence reduced based on a November 2007 change to the crack guidelines — Aaron's unexpected last shot at freedom through the legal system. Now his only hope is a presidential pardon.