Is There Racial Bias In Clemency Decisions?

Nearly 20 years ago Clarence Aaron was sentenced to three life terms for his involvement in a drug deal. His request to have his sentence shortened was denied by the White House in 2008. Now a story by ProPublica's Dafna Linzer reports the Bush administration was not told key facts before deciding on it. Host Michel Martin speaks with Linzer.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, France's new leader is moving into the presidential palace and he is bringing along his companion - her word, not ours. So what if they're not married and just how do you word that invitation to your son's wedding? Our international panel of women commentators are going to head into the Beauty Shop to weigh in on that and other issues that, frankly, many other families who are not in the spotlight have to consider.

But first we want to turn to a news story about our justice system. In recent years we've heard many stories about whether police and prosecutors in some places around the country have been too quick to seek convictions without adequate evidence and have wound up convicting the wrong people.

That is not what we're talking about today but it is a story about whether a small but powerful federal office has been too hasty in evaluating which inmates can have their sentences shortened. Nearly two decades ago, a then-24 year old man named Clarence Aaron was convicted for his role in a drug deal.

He introduced a cocaine dealer to a supplier and was sentenced to three life terms for that role even though he had no prior offenses and didn't buy, sell, or use any drugs himself. Aaron's case has been taken up by activists and lawmakers. Even the judge who sentenced him supported his petition to shorten his sentence.

Three years ago, that application was denied by the White House, but in a new twist, an investigative reporting team found that the George W. Bush administration actually did not know about the support that Mr. Aaron had or other key facts of the case before turning down his request. We wanted to hear more about this so we're joined now by Dafna Linzer, who reported this story. Excuse me.

She's a senior reporter at ProPublica. That's an independent non-profit news gathering group. And she's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DAFNA LINZER: Thanks so much, Michel.

MARTIN: I should mention, or I should reiterate, that you are not the first reporter to be interested in Clarence Aaron's case, as I mentioned. I'll just play a short clip of Clarence Aaron. He spoke to PBS back in 1999 about his reaction when he was first convicted.

(SOUNDBITE OF PBS INTERVIEW)

CLARENCE AARON: I just couldn't believe that when the judge told me that. Three life sentences running concurrent. I just couldn't believe that this was occurring to me. All I seen my whole life, everything that I strived and stayed out of trouble for all my life go down the drain. You know?

MARTIN: Now, Dafna, as I mentioned, you're not arguing that he is innocent, but why is it that so many people have been so taken with this case over the years? And tell us what's new in your reporting. What did you add to this story?

LINZER: Sure. And that "Frontline" piece that you just played was really, really crucial in Clarence Aaron developing the kind of support that he did. Three life sentences for a 24-year-old, you know, he was a star linebacker at Southern University in Baton Rouge when he was convicted. He kind of became a symbol of the excesses of the drug war and very harsh long sentencing for young people.

And that's kind of why Clarence Aaron had - was able to sort of galvanize the support that he could for his efforts to seek a commutation, a shortening of sentence. If he doesn't get it he will die in prison. That's his only possible way out. What we found, actually, was that his case, it turns out, was also of significant interest to the White House.

The Bush White House in its last year in office, we had done a series of stories examining the pardons office and were able to determine that the Bush White House and in fact many other administrations - we interviewed people going back five administrations - were really kind of unaware and sort of at the mercy of the pardon attorney and their recommendations to presidents over the years.

The Bush administration was particularly frustrated on pardons. They had been looking for candidates to pardon, candidates who would be good to commute their sentences. This is a feel good thing that presidents do, sometimes wait quite late in their terms to do it. In this case the Bush White House was very interested in Clarence Aaron and had asked the pardons office to take a second look after the pardon office had pushed for a denial that the Bush administration didn't act on.

And so the pardons office went ahead and started looking around to see if Clarence Aaron might have the most critical support he would need to get a commutation, and that would come from the sentencing judge and the prosecutor. And in fact, in Clarence Aaron's case it turned out, you know, a Republican appointed judge, a Republican appointed U.S. attorney and a Republican White House were all interested in commuting his sentence and still the pardons office said no, and in fact hid a lot of that information from the White House, kept from the White House crucial evidence, crucial information and the recommendations from those key people.

MARTIN: You use the word hid from the White House. That implies that it was intentional. What did they say when you approached them about why they didn't make this information available to the White House?

LINZER: You know, the Justice Department hasn't commented on any aspect of the story citing privacy, although I'm not sure whose privacy they're citing. You know, they just wouldn't discuss any aspect of the case except to say that each case gets a very good and thorough look.

In the case of Clarence Aaron, that was certainly true. His case was examined twice by the pardons office and the pardon attorney came to the same conclusion, despite the support that Clarence Aaron had. But our story also showed that many, many, many people simply do not get thorough looks. The pardons office in the last four years has recommended denials for 7,000 people, an average of seven per day, every working day. So that's a lot of - a lot of no's.

MARTIN: I should mention, we also reached out to the Justice Department to get a response and we have not yet received an immediate response. But we also reached out to former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He was President George W. Bush's White House counsel from 2001 to 2005 until he became attorney general, and he wrote us a statement. I'll read it in its entirety, if that's OK.

LINZER: Sure.

MARTIN: Clemency is an act of grace by the sovereign to be exercised by the sovereign with total discretion. However, when President George W. Bush chose to exercise that discretion, one of several factors he considered, based on my experience as his general counsel when he was governor and then later as his counsel in the White House, were the views of the prosecuting attorney and the sentencing judge.

Assuming the reporting in the Post to be true, the failure by the pardon attorney to inform the White House of the views of the prosecutor and judge in the case of Clarence Aaron is troubling. That is his statement. How do you respond to that? What do you make of it?

LINZER: Yeah. You know, I interviewed General Gonzales twice for the series and, you know, this was, you know, I interviewed also numerous other, you know, I think almost every former living White House counsel, numerous former deputies attorney general and others who served as attorneys general. And, you know, this was an effort to kind of understand how they saw the process.

And, you know, my reporting shows that, you know, he's exactly right. His recollections are exactly right, that the views of the judge and the prosecutor are essential. You know, they're not - it doesn't always mean yes for every petitioner but they are crucial in the success of an applicant.

And in this case, you know, where you have the White House eager to commute Clarence's sentence, I think having known the full extent of the views of the prosecutor and the sentencing judge would have been incredibly valuable. And it was exactly what they were looking for, frankly. When I took the views of the judge and the prosecutor to the associate White House counsel then who served President Bush in his second term, he was really stunned.

And he said he would've recommended that the president commute Aaron's sentence. You know, had that happened, Clarence Aaron would've been out of prison four years ago.

MARTIN: We should mention that Mr. Gonzales resigned in 2007. Mr. Aaron's request was denied the next year. And if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the story of an inmate whose petition for a shorter sentence was denied. A new investigative story by journalist Dafna Linzer found that the White House was not told key pieces of information before denying it, and Dafna Linzer is a senior reporter at ProPublica who has been pursuing this reporting.

You know, let me just take a step back and look at the bigger picture here. This is - you've previously reported the fact that white criminals seeking presidential pardons over the last decade have been nearly four times as likely to succeed as minorities and that African-Americans have had the poorest chance of receiving the president's act of mercy according to the analysis by you and your set of co-reporters. Why do you think that is?

LINZER: You know, this is really an interesting question. Our statistical analysis doesn't answer that question. It doesn't explain why white applicants have been so overwhelmingly successful, but we did weigh for all factors, so you get to the four times statistic after you weigh everybody's sentence and offense and age of conviction, whether they had prior or subsequent criminal histories.

We looked at whether applicants had filed for bankruptcies, had liens against them, every single factor that the Pardons Office itself says it considers in determining who is a worthy candidate.

When everybody is equal, whites are still four times as likely to be pardoned. You know...

MARTIN: I just want to emphasize that because you say in your report no two pardon cases match up perfectly, but records reveal repeated instances in which white applicants won pardons with transgressions on their records similar to those of blacks and other minorities who were denied.

And I'm emphasizing that because I'm sure there will be people who will say, well, were these violent crimes versus nonviolent crimes?

LINZER: Exactly.

MARTIN: No matter what - and you're saying that you did control for that in your analysis.

LINZER: Absolutely. We did control for it and you're right. We found numerous instances where two people were very, very similar. Two women, both from Little Rock, Arkansas, from the same city, which is, you know, remarkable. They both had convictions for tax-related crimes. One woman and her husband carried out this massive tax fraud scheme. They filed false claims with the IRS using fictitious names, fictitious Social Security numbers to try and get back, you know, tens of thousands of dollars from government that wasn't theirs.

The second woman underreported her income. She owned her own beauty salon. She actually didn't even owe back any money to the IRS, but she paid a $3,000 fine and agreed to plead guilty because she couldn't afford to go to trial.

You know, neither woman had any other criminal records. They both, you know, went to church. They both had good recommendations. They both came before the pardon attorney in their applications.

The woman who was white was approved. She received a pardon. A year later, the woman who was African-American was denied and, frankly, she was - the woman who was African-American was a more favorable candidate. She had a...

MARTIN: Interesting.

LINZER: ...far less harsh sentence. She - you know, and we saw that repeatedly.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now, except, very briefly, Dafna, if you would, Clarence Aaron has reapplied for his sentence to be commuted. That's pending any change in the system. Very briefly.

LINZER: Not so far, but there are calls for massive changes and congressional investigations at the Pardons Office.

MARTIN: Dafna Linzer is a senior reporter with ProPublica. That's a nonprofit investigative journalism group. She was with us from NPR New York. Dafna, thank you so much for your reporting and thank you for joining us.

LINZER: Thank you.

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