Journalism in the Public Interest

Obama Administration Wants Review of Prisoner’s Commutation Request

The Justice Department is reviewing the commutation request of a federal inmate while conducting its first-ever in-depth analysis of presidential pardons.

Clarence Aaron was sentenced to three life terms in federal prison without parole for abetting a drug conspiracy. In 2001, he applied for a presidential commutation but was ultimately denied. Now, the Obama administration has asked for a fresh review of Aaron's request. (Photo courtesy of PBS FRONTLINE)

This post was co-published with The Washington Post.

The Obama administration has asked for a fresh review of an Alabama federal inmate's commutation request and directed the Justice Department to conduct its first ever in-depth analysis of recommendations for presidential pardons, according to several officials and individuals involved.

The Office of Pardon Attorney has been at the center of growing controversy since December, when stories published by ProPublica and The Washington Post revealed a racial disparity in pardons. White applicants were four times more likely to receive presidential mercy than minorities. African Americans had the least chance of success.

A subsequent story published in May recounted the saga of Clarence Aaron, a first-time offender sentenced in 1993 to three life terms in prison for his role in a drug conspiracy. In 2008, the pardon attorney recommended that President George W. Bush deny Aaron's request for a commutation even though his application had the support of the prosecutor's office that tried him and the judge who sentenced him. The pardon attorney, Ronald L. Rodgers, did not fully disclose that information to the White House.

The handling of Aaron's case prompted widespread criticism that the pardon office-- which has rejected applications at an unprecedented pace under Rodgers--is not giving clemency requests proper consideration.

Aaron filed a new commutation request in 2010, which is pending. In the past two months, his cause has been taken up by members of Congress, law professors and prominent civil rights advocates, many of whom have called for a broader investigation of the pardon process.

Since 2008, more than 7,000 applications for commutations have been denied, more than 22 times the total rejected in President Ronald Reagan's two terms. Obama has commuted the sentence of just one person.

Recent presidents also have granted fewer pardons than their predecessors. Bush granted 189 during his two-term presidency, less than half the number pardoned by President Bill Clinton. So far, Obama has pardoned 22 individuals.

Advisers to the president said they expect that number to rise significantly whether or not he is elected to a second term.

"There will be 76 days between the election and inauguration for the president to exercise his power," said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.

Officials said there has been growing interest inside the White House for reforming the pardon process, specifically how recommendations are made to the president.

White House spokesman Matt Lehrich would not comment on the status of Aaron's petition, saying the administration did not discuss individual cases. The Justice Department also had no comment on Aaron's request.

But two individuals involved in the case said the White House had asked the Justice Department for a new review in recent weeks.

The assessment is being conducted by Helen M. Bollwerk, the deputy pardon attorney. Rodgers will take no part in the case this time around, according to a participant involved in the case.

When Rodgers recommended a denial in 2008, the Bush administration was unaware of the level of support Aaron had, according to a former Bush White House lawyer who handled pardon requests. That is no longer case.

"The arguments for clemency have all been well made and the White House knows those facts," said Margaret Love, a former pardon attorney in Washington who is representing Aaron for free. Love said she, Aaron's family and community leaders in his hometown of Mobile, Ala., have developed a "reentry plan," should Aaron be released soon.

"He has a job waiting for him and he will have real help integrating back into his community," Love said.

In Obama's first year in office, then-White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig led an internal effort to create a bipartisan commission, akin to a parole board, that would operate outside the Justice Department and include a wide array of stakeholders.

Craig's idea foundered after he departed the job at the end of 2009, but other advisers are taking an interest, including deputy White House counsel Caroline Cheng, Tonya Robinson, a special assistant to the president on justice issues, and Brian Levine who serves as Vice President Joe Biden's domestic policy adviser.

The White House asked the Justice Department in January to have the Bureau of Justice Statistics conduct a review, another shift in the administration's approach to pardons.

"We are now getting in place the framework for a comprehensive, independent study," said Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman. The department's Bureau of Justice Statistics will contract with an independent firm to conduct the pardons study, Hornbuckle said, which "will examine how petitions for pardon are adjudicated and whether any discernible bias exists."

Last month, a group of prominent law professors wrote to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, calling on Congress to "examine the Office of the Pardon Attorney's conduct with regard to applicants for sentence commutations."

It was the fourth such request to a congressional committee since the story on Aaron's commutation case. Without a presidential commutation, Aaron, 43, who has spent almost 20 years incarcerated, will die in prison.

“These legal experts see exactly what we see: a pardon attorney’s office that is failing to provide the president with the unbiased information he needs to fulfill his constitutional clemency power fully and fairly,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonpartisan Washington group which has advocated successfully on behalf of clemency applicants.

Families of clemency applicants also began circulating a petition calling on Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. to replace Rodgers.

Hornbuckle said the Attorney General has full confidence in Rodgers and the work of the pardon office.

But two government officials disputed that assertion, saying they were told that the White House and leaders within the Justice Department had lost confidence in Rodgers and were seeking a replacement. The officials said the search is preliminary and focused on internal candidates. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity because the job is not vacant.

Rodgers, through Justice Department spokesmen, has refused requests for an interview.

Be careful what you wish for.  Only the mass criminalization of African American males has stalled our having to do real heavy lifting in order to do away with Jim Crow since the ‘70’s.  Were it not for having 10% of this population in jail, on parole or probation at any given time, and a full one third permanently disenfranchised, we would have had to make real political and even economic concessions to the Black community.
The chief modality is of course the Drug War which is also most useful in our foreign policy—allowing us to make a case for the interventions in countries beyond our borders so useful to sustaining our standard of living with the plunder.

Moira Hennings

July 18, 2012, 6:12 p.m.

I pray that this will encourage States to make the same move. 3 life sentences? Same as states with LWOP on 3 Strikes. Regardless of the fact that many have NON violent, NO injury crimes we lock them away forever…Many Blacks! Most without representation that money can buy and so we set out raising generations of the black race without benefit of fathers and some mothers. We set them up to fail…I understand that the President only speaks for the Federal cases but my family prays that States will also begin looking at the Sentencing structure and idea of Justice.

He should commute all the men in women in prison not able to take advantage of the Fair Sentencing Act, everyone from Congress to the Supreme Court agree that the old 100 to 1 ratio was discriminatory, yet they are still in jail.

Karen Severson, Hope Rippey and many other violent offenders were released early because they are white, female, and “Born Again” while incarcerated. Research “Prison Fellowship Ministries”, they are in hundreds of prisons under different sects and subsidized with tax dollars. They only help Christian prisoners and have been sued for this.
They were started by Nixon aid Chuck Colson…the guy who wanted to plant bombs around where the Vietnam protesters would gather…and he was a good Christian at the time, just thought he had that right because God spoke to him personally. Many have wrote that Colson still uses his dirty tricks only for a different cause. They now have an army of internet stalkers entering forums to harass people who speak out about the injustice of these violent offenders being released early. And probably use tax dollars to pay them. 

Hope Rippey was involved with the kidnapping torture and murder (by burning alive) of Shanda Sharer. Sentenced to 50 years, served only 14.

Karen Severson lured her best friend Missy Avila to a secluded location than beat and drowned her with friend Laura Doyle. Karen received 15 to life but only served 15 years. Thanks to her “Born Again” ministry connections.

Not to take the spotlight off Washington, where they’re clearly in the wrong, but I’m curious why there’s no massive investigation into a prosecutor who secured multiple life sentences for a defendant and yet supports commuting the sentence.  That doesn’t exactly have a fresh and clean scent to it.

Phillip Emmert

July 19, 2012, 1:12 p.m.

I am just very glad that this prosecutor had a change of heart.  At the time of Calrence’s trial, the federal courts were at their peak of insanity.  Life sentences were like a notch on their guns.  I once met a US Attorney that served in a very large city that said, “I have yet to see a King Pin in my court.”  Which is what life sentences were meant for.  Yet hundreds recieved life sentences.  If the prosecutor and the judge ask for communtation, it is a no-brainer.  Everyone that has had any dealing with the Pardon Attorney’s office know they are a joke.  High paid, do nothings that are scared to make a good recommendation.  We need to fire the whole bunch and come up with something better.  I received a commutation in 2007.  You just can’t stand in the way of God!

I believe there was a Frontline special on mandatory sentencing in which they profiled 3-4 cases and this young man was one of them.  If I remember correctly, the prosecutor and courts were forced under these laws to give this young man a sentence they vehemently disagreed with…......the road to good intentions?

Peter L Wanger

July 19, 2012, 2:54 p.m.

Rodgers reminds me of the Immigration Officer in the 1930’s who denied admission to Jews fleeing the Nazi threat (1932-1935) and the Nazi Reality (1935-1945) solely because he hated Jews. African Americans are convicted more than Whites, are sentenced for longer terms than Whites and are given parole or pardon less frequently than Whites. In many parts of the US, African-American males have demonized - no more human but something less (see Dred Scott v Sandford - Justice Roger B. Taney’s majority opinion and what he considered the top of his career. We need tol change American opinion and give all African-Americans and other minorities better educations, the only sure way to make these minorities truly competitive with Whites.

The politics stinks!  For instance, will Leonard Peltier ever be pardoned?  His trial has been judged unfair by so many and the attorney for the FBI admitted they don’t know who fired the shots that killed the two agents.

He has served 35 years for being there to defend his people on Pine Ridge. 

Free Leonard!

I am so glad Pres.Obama is Looking into this along with the Dept. of Justice.  I have read of this mans story over a couple years and have prayed and hoped that one day, he would be released!  Thank you Pres. Obama for looking into this matter and hope you do the right thing.  I am a Christian, a Republican, but in NO Way am I prejudiced against anyone in Prison for a long term NOT deserved or perhaps even innocent.  I know without a doubt, that Anyone that has no money or not some kind of “big shot” in their community will not get anywhere near a justified sentence compared to a person with money or a Big Shot in commuity and that sure includes many minorities, especially Blacks.  But Poor whites are included.  NO Prosecutor and NO Judge has a justified Right to Sentence a person way beyond their crime.  I would include the UNIONS for prison guards that also play a big part in wanting to keep prisons full.  I would wish this man could or would Move himself out of his Home State as very possible he could continue to get watched or harrassed by the Locals!!!!
  May Courage and Peace Be yours to Stay in a Daily walk forward!0

Mike S Goodman

July 19, 2012, 5 p.m.

It’s too bad, however, that no review is possible of the pardons to those crooks that Bill Clinton issued on his last half-day in office!
Talk about cowardice!

Howard A. Doughty

July 19, 2012, 6:24 p.m.

Where to begin?

The stories of the wrongfully convicted and the cruelly punished are limitless. The USA the most violent country in the allegedly civilized world also incarerates more of its population than any other and is the only one of the “developed” countries to retain the death penalty.

Mr. Obama has been a disappointment on almost every issue and shows little interest in making any sort of transformative change in the hideous criminal “justice” system. So, while I wish everyone from Clarence Aaron to Leonard Paltier to Bradley Manning and all the nameless others who have not come to the attention of the public the very best luck, this is a deep systemic problem. Individual victories, while sweet, are merely grease for the wheels.

I don’t know whether Aaron’s crime was only a drug conspiracy or he killed so many just like the advisers or the folks of kings that are always doing the similar things through tricky hidden plots for facilitating perfect atmosphere for creating callings, fortunes for themselves and associated priviledged law professionals in the outdated primary model of the basically same judicial system all over the world.
If, soon the drug business is legalized temporarily to become illegal again a century later; then, persons like Aaron who didn’t commit killings or crimes against humanity (like kings did in the past and still continuing to do same) may not be considered as criminals at all and deserve to receive clemency asap in moments of eternal times while great guys like Obama leads the the world including earthly matters or affairs of justice in the wild scenarios or ‘peacefully civilized global societies’.
The Bushes are still safe, the Hedgehogs, the manipulating kings are still protected and should receive pardons by wise heads of current mankind (because humans with true wisdom cannot kill humans, even cannot make plans for killings).
However, for example: Wise heads have failed to forgive the short-comings of a outdated king: Assad and just delaying the fast processing of a global political change for good.
The fact of future events to be unfolded yet is: either ways, the days of monarchs are ending gradually.
Who do some still want to defend and what they are afraid of?
Digital communication is changing the the systems of justice all over and the digital evidences are now indestructible. If the belief-blinds or liars that are akin to ‘so called or thought “God’s Law administrators” still in control of some part of ‘virtually the same global judicial systems’, think that they can get away with their old-fashioned manipulating tricks in this digital era, they are not smarter than ordinary stupid voters on the global polling centers electing law makers, leaders, rulers etc.
We have to patiently wait a short time before becoming able to see the real faces of actual ideots as the fogs begin to clear slowly.
No hard feelings because no one is going to kill another of same humankind!.
It’s also certain that belief-blind all types Mullahs, bearded or not, is capable of running a short distance and will never be able to defeat humanity.

We need more action taken with those that have had previous commutation requests denied. One of my best friends was honorably discharged from the Marines but suffered horribly from PTSD once he was home. His untreated PTSD along with the federal court’s prejudices, he has now been sitting in prison for over 15 years. This man is a war hero that gave up his life for this country! Now he has had his life taken away BY this country! All because he is an Arab-American Muslim that had untreated PTSD. His commutation should be one of the first on the list to be revisited quickly!

Eugenia Jennings

July 23, 2012, 2:44 a.m.

I am truly very happy to read this article because this is a step in the right direction…I will forever be grateful for the efforts being put toward this because it’s ENOUGH!! Something needs to be done about those non-violent offenders that are left behind, wishing that the Pardon Attorney will send their cases to the White House…I am living proof that if u believe it, you shall receive it but what about the many who believe it and still do not receive it?It is so many Clarence’s, Eugenia’s, and Phillip’s in the prison system, true story…I pray that this investigation changes the way things are being done so that those who wasn’t given a fair shot at justice, will soon have one…I have faith in President Obama and this investigation and I pray that justice be prevailed….

I wish deeply that they would also do the state and not just the federal. I do have faith in President Obama also. to see the investigation and pray that justice be prevail. for I know of a man that got senctence when he was 17 years old and first time offender. did not know that they had kill a man by hitting him in the head would of kill him the night they had rob him,until the next day. HE GOT VERY SCARED! and said oh my God please help me for what I have done being on drugs also. to forgive him and his family. so this man has been in there to long to serve so much time, when they did not know they really had kill someone. this man has serve 19 years now, and he needs to get out. so he can start his life over again, and do right for everyone, from his heart. i HOPE THEY WILL PARDON HIM FOR WHAT HE HAS DONE AND DO HAVE REMORSE AND SERVE HIS TIME ALREADY!

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Presidential Pardons

Presidential Pardons: Shades of Mercy

White criminals seeking presidential pardons are nearly four times as likely to succeed as people of color, a ProPublica examination has found.

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories