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The Prisoner, the Pundit, and the President
Scott Lucas | Photo: Courtesy PBS | December 20, 2013
When President Obama commuted the sentences of 8 convicted felons yesterday, one of them had Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders to thank. The inside story of a long struggle for justice.
"Every season I go through this. I start hoping. In the morning, I heard about somebody else getting a pardon, and I thought that Clarence could be next. I got in touch with his attorney—and you can imagine the rest. I couldn't believe it after all this time."
That's the San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders talking yesterday evening, just hours after news broke that President Obama had commuted the sentences of eight men and women serving draconian sentences under the United State's antiquated drug laws. Included in those eight was Clarence Aaron, who had been sentenced to life without parole for his role in setting up a crack cocaine deal.
In 1992, Aaron, then a college student, acted as a go between for two dealers. When they were caught, the two men pled guilty and testified against Aaron. Aaron pled not guilty, and after lying on the stand, was sentenced to life without parole. For a first-time drug deal, Aaron was given, as Saunders notes, "the same sentence [that] was imposed on FBI agent-turned-Russian spy Robert Hanssen and now-deceased serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer."
And the story might have ended there: A young African-American from Alabama caught up in the Drug War's disproportionate and draconian sentencing laws. But it didn't. "I’m not the most high profile person in the media to have written about it," says Saunders. "I'm just the one who stuck with it."
The long-time writer at the Chronicle has devoted dozens of columns devoted to the case since she 2001, when she came across it in a Frontline documentary. Though Saunders is the conservative-leaning political columnist at the paper, she has not always steered hard right when it comes to criminal justice, having written a series of columns during the Clinton Presidency about wives and girlfriends of drug dealers who received unduly harsh sentences. But with Aaron, she says, "here was this case that was so off the charts. It was surreal." Saunders never minimized his guilt—but she never minimized how insane the sentence was either.
Her drumbeat stretched across multiple Presidents. Back in 2001, Saunders laid out the case for why a commutation would be politically advantageous for then-President Bush: "Sentencing laws have fallen disproportionately on African Americans. Like Aaron. Bush can only gain politically by granting commutations to deserving inmates," she wrote. "Doing so would demonstrate Dubya's compassion and his commitment to serve all Americans, not just the rich and well-connected." But she was as willing to plead Aaron's case to a Democrat as a Republican. She continued to write about Aaron through the Obama administration, including a column in 2012 in which she said, "If there is one virtue voters had every reason to expect from Barack Obama, it is a strong sense of social justice. Yet somehow the one-time community organizer has dropped that ball when it comes to the exercise of his constitutional power to pardon individuals who have committed federal offenses." She doesn't hide her disappointment with Obama, saying that, "I thought he would use his commutation power more. I've come to feel he must be a very cold human being."
But nonetheless, Saunders thinks that Aaron's case—and the attention it draws to our drug law sentences—is a non-partisan issue. "It's not a risk," she says. "Have you seen anybody criticize the commutations today?" And it's not often that a conservative columnist cites the work of the ACLU approvingly. But Saunders doesn't mind.
So how did it feel after having spilled so much ink to hear that Aaron would finally be released? "His cousin called me. We cried. The family has never given up hope," she said. "I try to keep detached when I am writing about things, but there was no detachment with this story." In the end, despite the long-fought victory, Saunders strike a modest tone: "The fact is, I never set out to make Clarence Aaron a crusade. I saw an injustice. I wrote about it. The injustice didn't end. I didn't stop."