FAMM Briefing Highlights Broken Clemency Process, Clarence Aaron

Leading Sentencing Reform Group Repeats Call for Congressional Investigation


Contact: Monica Pratt Raffanel, (202) 822-6700 or media@famm.org 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – FAMM today hosted a panel discussion that highlighted the enormous – and often negative – impact that federal clemency decisions have on real people and their families. The event, which was held at the National Press Club, came a week after a media investigation revealed disturbing new information about misconduct in the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) at the U.S. Department of Justice with regard to applicants for sentence commutations.

Dafna Linzer, a senior reporter for ProPublica and author of the OPA story, and Sam Morison, who served for 13 years as a staff attorney at the OPA, joined Molly Gill, FAMM’s director of special projects, on the panel along with three individuals with direct experience with the OPA.

Linda Aaron, mother of federal prisoner Clarence Aaron, a first-time, nonviolent drug offender serving three life sentences without parole, spoke movingly about the severe mental and emotional burden her son’s sentence has put on her entire family. Clarence Aaron’s case was the focus of Ms. Linzer’s investigative story. Linzer reported that the Bush administration seriously considered commuting Mr. Aaron’s sentence, but denied his request after it was misled by the OPA about Mr. Aaron’s sentencing judge and prosecuting office’s support for his petition.

Mrs. Aaron said, “I was devastated when I read the article about Clarence and how his commutation petition was mishandled. I could not believe it. How could a person do that to a human being? It could have been his child.” Despite her family’s suffering, Linda said Clarence’s best days are before him, if he receives a commutation and comes home. "He can have a positive impact on other people's lives.”

Debi Campbell, a former model federal prisoner who served her entire 17-year sentence despite multiple commutation petitions, also spoke. She illustrated the dysfunction permeating the OPA when she revealed that the notice of her final commutation denial was delivered to her home months after she finished serving her sentence. Ms. Campbell said, “I thought they would be fair and honest and really look at my case. I had lots of support. My sentence was so long for a first-time, nonviolent offense. I knew I made a mistake when I was arrested, but to be sentenced to 20 years seemed crazy. I couldn't imagine I was going to have to serve all that time in America."

Campbell’s petition was denied twice while she was incarcerated, and she says, "The last denial came when I was already home and received an email telling me my case was closed. It was typical." Summing up her experiences in prison, Campbell says, "People get used to their situation. After a couple of years in prison, it's not punishment anymore. It's just a waste of time."

The panel also included Derrick Curry, who received a FAMM-supported commutation in 2001 after serving 8 ½ years of a 19-year sentence. Curry had been a bit player in a crack cocaine conspiracy but received a sentence longer than all but one of the 28 co-conspirators. Today, he is a community support worker for at-risk, mentally ill youth and an example of how prisoners can transform their lives and make the most of second chances. Mr. Curry said, “Percentage-wise, I compare getting clemency to winning Powerball. When I got out, I wanted to work with at-risk youth because I thought I could be a positive influence. It’s been a blessing to have a second chance.”

Sam Morison, a longtime staff attorney at the OPA, worked on Clarence Aaron’s case before the Pardon Attorney, in a move Morison described as “highly unusual,” took the case away from him. He spoke with firsthand experience of the institutional problems that have led to the approval of just 12 commutations total, with over 11,300 rejections during the Obama and Bush Administrations, including Clarence’s.

Mr. Morison says, "The pardon attorney's office says they look at every case carefully, but that's not true. They are supposed to be a neutral arbiter. OPA is supposed to wear two hats – his client is the DOJ but he also works for the president. The pardon attorney is supposed to give fair, neutral advice to the president. That, in my opinion, has simply collapsed. That ethic no longer exists. The pardon attorney’s office now only represents the prosecutorial function of the Justice Department. It has an agenda. That would be okay if that's what was represented to the public."

Speaking about Clarence Aaron’s botched commutations petition, Morison said, “President Bush sent it back in 2007 and said ‘please reconsider your position.’ If they send it back, it meant they were inclined to support the petition and were looking for some support from the Justice Department. I knew it. We talked about it in the office. I said we should re-solicit the views of the judge and the U.S. Attorney. Once we got those views in late 2008, I thought I would finish the recommendation, but Ronald Rodgers (the U.S. pardon attorney) took the case away from me. I was cut out of it at a crucial moment.”

Dafna Linzer said she was shocked to learn from her investigation that over 7,000 commutation requests have been denied over the last four years, at the rate of seven petitions per day. This strongly supports allegations that the OPA is not giving applicants meaningful or individualized review, or providing the president with the full facts of the cases. She also said that she is disturbed by the racial bias that seems to determine who receives a favorable recommendation. “White applicants are four times as likely as minorities to receive a commutation, and that was after we weighed for all other relevant factors. What struck me was that this was contemporary race disparity happening within the Justice Department itself. If this were occurring at a state or local government level, the Justice Department would probably investigate.”

When asked about DOJ’s response to the articles, Ms. Linzer said, “The department hasn't responded. Their initial response to the pardon story in December was that they were concerned about what the statistics showed and were looking into it. That was six months ago and they have not come back.”

After the event, FAMM President Julie Stewart said, “What we heard and learned today confirms my view that the OPA cannot be fixed without a full investigation by Congress. The clemency process has become a hit-or-miss game in which justice very rarely prevails.

“I wish the people responsible for denying Clarence Aaron’s commutation could have heard from his mother, as we did today. She knows her son made a mistake. But no one can honestly believe that keeping him in prison for the rest of his life would not be an even bigger mistake,” Stewart concluded.

On May 21, FAMM joined more than three dozen criminal justice, civil and religious organizations on a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee urging a full investigation into the OPA’s misconduct. The full text of the letter and full list of signatories can be found here.

On May 22, Representatives John Conyers (D-MI) and Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-VA) sent a letter to President Obama asking that he order Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the allegations against the OPA and to commute Clarence Aaron’s sentence if those allegations prove to be true. The full text of their letter can be found here.

FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) is a national, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that supports fair and proportionate sentencing laws that allow judicial discretion while maintaining public safety.

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