Criminal Justice

Commutation Now or Later? Pardon Lawyer Accused of Misrepresenting US Atty Views in Ambiguous Email

A new report accuses the Justice Department’s pardon attorney of inaccuracies and ambiguities in his clemency recommendations for a former college football star convicted in a drug conspiracy.

The report by the department’s Office of Inspector General says Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers did not accurately represent the views of the new U.S. Attorney in Mobile, Ala., who supported a sentence commutation, report Pro Publica and the Washington Times.

The inmate seeking clemency, Clarence Aaron, was a 24-year-old football star at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., when he was convicted in the drug conspiracy in 1993, ProPublica says. He received a triple life sentence without parole even though he was not the buyer, the user, the supplier or the dealer. The White House asked the Justice Department to reconsider Aaron’s clemency petition in 2007 after an earlier recommendation that the petition be denied.

According to the report, Rodgers’ 2008 email supplementing the original denial recommendation downplayed the significance of the views of the new U.S. Attorney, Deborah Rhodes, who had recommended commutation to 25 years in prison. Aaron had served 15 years in prison at the time.

The prior U.S. Attorney had opposed commutation, but Rodgers’ email said the position of his replacement was “slightly revised,” according to the report. “In fact the change was dramatic,” the report said.

Rodgers’ email also said Rhodes felt the commutation request was 10 years premature, an inaccurate representation that made it appear the prosecutor opposed immediate commutation. “The most reasonable interpretation of Rhodes’ recommendation is that Aaron’s sentence be reduced to 25 years by granting his application for clemency to that extent, not denying it with the understanding that it might be renewed in a decade,” according to the IG report. An immediate commutation would have allowed Aaron to receive good-time credit for an earlier release, the report said.

The report also criticizes Rodgers’ email for ambiguities in conveying the views of the judge in the case, who said he would have no objection to commutation to time served. The email said the judge would have “no objection to commuting the sentence presently.” The email had two possible meanings: an immediate commutation to time served, or an immediate commutation to a term of years that would require more time in prison.

Prior coverage: “ProPublica Eyes Role of DOJ Pardon Atty in Nixing Release of First-Time Offender Serving Life”

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