When Unethical Approaches Evil: The Clarence Aaron Pardon Fiasco

Clarence Aaron, waiting for justice

I read about Clarence Aaron four days ago. It has bothered me ever since. The short version of this horror story is that a young man, outrageously sentenced to three consecutive life sentences for a drug offense despite being a first offender, was poised to receive a pardon from President Bush but did not, because the Pardon Attorney charged with job of presenting the case to the President inexplicably left out critical  information that would have all but guaranteed his freedom. The attorney’s name is Ronald Rogers: he was the Pardon Attorney under Bush, and is still in that post today.

I have been trying to figure out what ethical breach would describe what Rogers did, a difficult task in the absence of an explanation from him. Was this incompetence? Laziness? Was it a lack of diligence—was he careless? Did Rogers sink Aaron’s case because he doesn’t like blacks, or doesn’t like drugs, or doesn’t like pardons? Does he lack empathy? Sympathy? A heart?

I considered whether such a serious omission with such terrible consequences would support disciplinary action from a bar committee. I doubt it. Lawyers aren’t often disciplined for one mistake or poor decision, even a horrible one, unless it suggests dishonesty or bad character. Presumably Rogers really didn’t believe Aaron deserved a pardon; still, he had an obligation to give the President all the facts, and did not. I think that raises the issue of whether his trustworthiness is sufficiently impugned, if not to call into question his fitness to practice law, at least to suggest that he is in the wrong job. Both Bush and Obama have been mercilessly stingy with their use of the pardon power, which exists to allow the Executive to intervene when the justice system has gone wrong. It is hard not to conclude that Rogers hasn’t contributed to the poor performance of both Presidents he has served.

According to the Washington Post story, “Kenneth Lee, the lawyer who shepherded Aaron’s case on behalf of the White House, was aghast when ProPublica provided him with original statements from the judge and prosecutor to compare with Rodgers’s summary. Had he read the statements at the time, Lee said, he would have urged Bush to commute Aaron’s sentence.”

“This case was such a close call,” Lee said. “We had been asking the pardons office to reconsider it all year. We made clear we were interested in this case.”

Aaron story makes me physically ill.  He is in his 19th year in prison and is now 43; once a college football player with a bright future, his youth is gone, his life prospects diminished. He told the Post that had not known how close to success his request for a pardon had come, or why it had been denied. The primary reason was that, it appears, that Rogers never bothered to let the White House know that both the judge and the prosecutor  in the case felt that Aaron had been in prison long enough

“I didn’t know I had that type of support,” he told the Post reporter from the Alabama correctional facility where has been confined for two decades and has been a model prisoner. “When you do the right things each day, there really are people out there watching, and for those who still haven’t given me their support, I will keep working for them, too.”

I doubt that I would be so reasonable, in his place. Though there is no scenario in which I could conceive Rogers receiving severe professional sanctions for his handling of the case on ethical grounds, his conduct, in my view, edges perilously close to evil. He had a man’s life in his hands. This was no time for carelessness, bias, personal agendas, laziness or mistakes. I don’t care how over-worked he may have been or what was going with his health, his finances or his marriage. Clarence Aaron has but one life, and it is wasting away because of a justice system botch. Fate delivered Aaron’s life to Rogers, who had it within his power to right a wrong. He couldn’t make a mistake. This is a life. He knew the importance of his work to another human being’s very existence.  This wasn’t a moral luck scenario: the consequences of being wrong were known, and the were unbearable.

I think to fail to do justice to Clarance Aaron in such circumstances was unethical and I think being unethical when the stakes are so high comes very close, too close, to evil.


Facts: Washington Post

Source: Reason

Graphic: ProPublica

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

2 thoughts on “When Unethical Approaches Evil: The Clarence Aaron Pardon Fiasco

  1. Thank you for your article on Clarence Aaron. His case grabbed my heart in 2000 when I viewed PBS Frontline – ‘Snitch’. Clarence never deserved the sentence given him and as you said, what the Pardon Attorney robbed him of is no less than a grevious sin! Clarence remains patient, kind with no malice in his heart. In my books, he will always remain a more honorable man than all those responsible for his incarceration and remaining time in prison.

  2. Each retelling I’ve seen of this story, despite there being no knew facts, has made me queasy. It’s really that horrible.

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