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Timeline: Tracking Aaron’s Quest for Clemency

Clarence Aaron was a 23-year-old football star at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., in 1992, when he introduced a classmate to an old high school friend who was an Alabama drug dealer. A year later, the drug ring was busted and Aaron was indicted for his role in the conspiracy. At trial, Aaron refused to plead guilty or cooperate with prosecutors. He was convicted and sentenced to three life terms without parole. It was his first and only offense. In 2001, Aaron appealed to the president for a commutation of sentence, his only avenue for release. His request was denied in 2008. Now in his 19th year in prison, Aaron once again has a request pending for release. | Related story »

What was said What happened

Dec. 10, 1993

"The Guidelines computations reflected the highest possible offense level attributable to drug quantity (achieved when the offense involved more than 15 kilograms of crack), a two-level enhancement for obstructing justice by perjuring himself at trial, and a three-level enhancement for being a leader or organizer of criminal activity, for a final offense level of 47; offense level 43, the highest level under the sentencing grid, mandates a life sentence in all criminal history categories."

— The Office of the Pardon Attorney explains in the recommendation to deny Aaron's commutation request

Aaron is sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Butler Jr. to three consecutive life terms in prison without parole.

Jan. 12, 1999

"The only thing I can see I was involved in was introducing the two parties. As far as them making some type of transaction, whatever they wanted to get from each other, I don't know, but I did introduce the two parties."

— Clarence Aaron tells PBS Frontline

PBS "Frontline" airs the documentary "Snitch," which explores how prosecutors used informants in the drug war. Aaron, who did not cooperate with the prosecution in his case, was interviewed for the documentary.

January 2001

An application for a commutation of sentence is filed for Aaron by the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation just days before the inauguration of President George W. Bush. A copy of the application is forwarded to the White House by Republican Congressman Sonny Callahan of Alabama.

October 2001

"I acknowledge full responsibility for the role I played in these transactions. I am ashamed that I had any involvement with cocaine."

— Clarence Aaron writes in an affidavit

"Most, if not all of [petitioner's] co-conspirators ... played larger roles in the conspiracy than he did. I believe [he] should ... be free now. His crime did not deserve a life sentence, and it was certainly less serious a crime than the crimes committed by many of his co-conspirators."

— juror William Jordan writes in an affidavit supporting Aaron's request for a commutation

Aaron's new lawyer, Gregg Shapiro at the Boston firm of Choate, Hall & Stewart files an amended commutation application with an affidavit from Aaron and letters of support. Aaron expresses shame and regret for his role in the conspiracy. A juror from Aaron's trial, William Jordan, who voted to convict Aaron, writes that his sentence was overly harsh, his role minimal and he should be freed.

July 2, 2002

"I therefore feel it inappropriate for me to offer any 'comments or recommendations concerning the merits of Aaron's clemency request' just as I would feel it inappropriate for you to comment on my role as a trial and sentencing judge in this case."

— Judge Charles R. Butler Jr. writes in a letter to the Office of the Pardon Attorney

Judge Butler responds to a request from the Office of the Pardon Attorney for comment on Aaron's commutation request. He takes no position.

Sept. 25, 2002

"We are opposed to his request for clemency because nothing in the record or in the petition establishes that Aaron deserves consideration for clemency."

— U.S. Attorney David P. York writes in a memo to the Office of the Pardon Attorney on Aaron's commutation request

David P. York, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, responds to a request from the pardon office for comment on the application. York's three-page memo, stamped "Confidential (not for release outside DOJ)," explains why the office opposes a commutation for Aaron. Among the reasons: Aaron's refusal to plead guilty; his perjury conviction; and his claims to have played a minor role in the conspiracy.

August 2004

"Given the serious nature of petitioner's offenses and the absence of a compelling basis for mitigating his sentence at this point, I must recommend that you deny his clemency request."

— the Office of the Pardon Attorney writes in the proposed denial for Aaron's request to have his sentence commuted

The pardon office recommends that President Bush deny Aaron's application. In an eight-page letter to the White House laying out its reasoning, the pardon office mentions that Aaron has public and congressional support, was featured in the Frontline documentary "Snitch" and that his case was the subject of three articles written by Debra Saunders, then a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

September 2005

Deborah J. Rhodes becomes U.S. attorney in Alabama, replacing York.

December 2007

"Every day I wake-up I have to deal with my reality. Those years ago, I made a horribly selfish, foolish and wrong decision that am truly sorry for. I so regret all the hurt and damage I have caused others through my transgression. One of my life goals is to be the best person I can be. I want to be the best son, uncle, friend and citizen I can be. As I sit here now and reflect on my current plight, I feel the growth, maturity and strength that my experience in prison has, in God's loving hands, brought about in me. I just pray for a second chance to be a productive citizen."

— Aaron writes in an affidavit submitted with his updated application

Aaron is now represented by A. Hugh Scott of Choate, Hall & Stewart. Scott meets in Washington, D.C., with Pardon Attorney Roger Adams to discuss Aaron's case and provides an updated commutation application.

Adams resigns as pardon attorney after an inspector general's report criticizes him for using improper remarks to describe a pardon applicant.

January 2008

The White House returns the denial recommendation for Aaron to the pardon office and asks for "reconsideration" in the case. Helen Bollwerk, a lawyer in the office, becomes the acting pardon attorney.

Feb. 15, 2008

"And I believe that there are two other cases that are still under active reconsideration per our office's request: ... and Clarence Aaron."

— Associate White House Counsel Kenneth Lee writes in an email to Acting Pardon Attorney Helen Bollwerk

Associate White House Counsel Kenneth Lee sends an email to Acting Pardon Attorney Bollwerk with a list of pardon and commutation applicants the White House has identified as worthy of reconsideration despite earlier denial recommendations from the pardon office.

Bollwerk responds that she will take a look at all of the cases and is personally familiar with a couple. "I'll get back to you ASAP on them," she writes to Lee.

April 2008

Ronald L. Rodgers becomes pardon attorney.

May 29, 2008

Aaron's attorney, A. Hugh Scott, asks the pardon attorney to "suspend consideration of Mr. Aaron's petition for commutation," pending resolution of a motion for resentencing, which Scott has filed with Judge Butler in Mobile, Ala.

Sept. 29, 2008

"Looking through the prism of hindsight, and considering the many factors argued by the defendant that were not present at the time of his initial sentencing, one can argue that a less harsh sentence might have been more equitable; however, this Court is powerless to act in a pardon capacity."

— Judge Charles R. Butler Jr. writes in an order denying Aaron's motion for resentencing

Judge Butler denies Aaron's motion for resentencing on grounds that a change in sentencing guidelines would not result in a lowering of Aaron's guidelines range.

Oct. 27, 2008

"We respectfully request that you reactivate Mr. Aaron's Petition for Commutation forthwith."

- A. Hugh Scott writes in a letter to the pardon office

Scott notifies the pardon office that the motion for resentencing has failed. He asks that the commutation application be reactivated in light of the unsuccessful outcome at the court.

Nov. 25, 2008

"I have reviewed various documents submitted by Clarence Aaron in support of his Petition for Commutation of Sentence and agree that Aaron should receive a commutation of his life sentence."

- Deborah J. Rhodes writes in a response for comment on Aaron's case

Rhodes sends the pardon attorney a five-page response for comment on Aaron's case. She agrees that Aaron should receive an immediate commutation of his life sentence. She suggests that he be released after serving the equivalent of 25 years, with credit for good behavior. Under such a formulation, Aaron would be released in 2014, the same year as the drug supplier.

Dec. 2, 2008

"He believes that Aaron 'should be granted relief' by the president, as he suggested in his order, and 'does not think it would be at all unfair to release him at this time.'"

- Samuel Morison writes in an email recounting his conversation with Judge Butler to Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers

Samuel Morison, a staff attorney in the pardon office, calls Judge Butler to get his view of the commutation request. Morison emails his notes from the phone call to Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers, who says he "will take it from here." Rodgers then prepares a memo to the White House affirming the recommendation for denial.

Dec. 3, 2008

"The U.S. Attorney recommends that at some point Mr. Aaron's sentence be commuted to a term of 25 years...

[the Honorable Charles R. Butler Jr.] informed a member of my staff on December 2, 2008 that he had no objection to commuting the sentence presently...

they (the Office of the Deputy Attorney General) believe, as does the U.S. Attorney, that Mr. Aaron's commutation request is about 10 years premature."

- Ronald Rodgers writes in an email summarizing why Aaron's commutation request should be denied

Rodgers sends an email to Kenneth Lee at the White House, summarizing the views of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama and Judge Butler and listing three reasons that Aaron's application should be denied.

Dec. 4, 2008

Fox News begins a three-part online series, "Locked up for Life," about Aaron's case.

Dec. 23, 2008

President Bush denies Aaron's request for a commutation.

Jan. 12, 2009

The pardon office notifies Aaron's lawyer of the denial.

April 2010

After a one-year waiting period, Aaron reapplies for a commutation.