ProPublica tells the story of Clarence Aaron, who seemed to be especially deserving of a federal commutation, an immediate release from prison granted by the president of the United States. At 24, he was sentenced to three life terms for his role in a cocaine deal, even though it was his first criminal offense and he was not the buyer, seller or supplier of the drugs. Of all those convicted in the case, Aaron received the stiffest sentence.
His case was championed by lawmakers and civil rights activists, and taken up by the media, from PBS to Fox News. Ultimately, the prosecutor’s office and the sentencing judge supported an immediate commutation for Aaron. Yet the George W. Bush administration, in its final year in office, never knew the full extent of their views, which were compiled in a confidential Justice Department review, and Aaron’s application was denied. Aaron joined the long line of rejected applicants subjected to the extraordinary, secretive powers wielded by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the branch of the Justice Department that reviews commutation requests.