The Melissa Harris-Perry Show
Sunday, May 27, 2012.
MSNBC, The Melissa Harris-Perry Show.
Guest: Attorney Sam Morison.
MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: Last week, we brought you the story of one man behind bars for possibly the wrong reasons and his plea for a pardon. Now the pressure is actually building on President Obama to help him. The latest developments on Clarence Aaron`s story, when we return.
HARRIS-PERRY: Lasts weekend, I talked to Dafna Linzer of Pro-Publica about her report concerning Clarence Aaron, a prisoner serving three life sentences for a minor first time drug offense, whose clemency request was reportedly mishandled by Ronald Rogers, the man who still heads the U.S. pardon attorney's office. Within a weekss time, that one report has sparked a real increase in attention to the case. So much so, that now pressure is being put on President Obama and the White House to do
something about it.
Joining us now is Sam Morison, a former long-time staff attorney at the U.S. pardon attorney's office, who once worked on the Clarence Aaron case. We asked Ronald Rogers to join us, but he declined.
Good to see this morning.
SAM MORISON, FORMER STAFF ATTORNEY, U.S. PARDON ATTORNEY'S OFFICE: Good to see you, Melissa. Thanks for having me.
HARRIS-PERRY: Absolutely. So, start by telling us what the pardons office is. Not sure everyone knows what this office and is and how the Clarence Aaron's case came to be under your review.
MORISON: Well, I think everybody knows, under the Constitution, the president has the power to grant pardons and commutations of sentence for offenses against the United States. As a practical matter, given the large number of cases that get filed and the small size of the president's staff, he has to farm that out to somebody else to do investigative leg work. The president doesn't have the resources or time to do that part himself.
For more than 100 years, that office has been the Office of the Pardon Attorney which is part of the Justice Department. This, however, creates a structural problem that I think Clarence Aaron's case vividly illustrates.
And the problem is, the President doesn't know anything about these cases except what the Justice Department chooses to tell him, and he has no independent way to verify whether he is being told the truth or whether there are any other facts that he needs to know. So, he has to trust what he is being told.
The problem with that is that, unfortunately, the Justice Department in my view has a completely partisan view of how this should be handled. And in that sense, I don't really think they are serving the best interests of the presidency. They are serving the institutional interests of the Justice Department, and those aren't necessarily the same thing.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, why is it -- I know you felt at the time that Aaron's three life sentences should be commuted and that you still feel that way.
What led you to that conclusion?
MORISON: Well, for a variety of factors. One is, the President [Bush] was clearly interested in doing something in this case. He had sat on a denial recommendation for about three years (as Dafna reported in her initial story) and sent it back to the Justice Department with a request to take another look at it.
Now, we all knew what that meant. That meant they wanted us to change our position and support the President's desire to grant some relief in this case. I then decided, since it had been several years since we had approached the U.S. Attorney's office and the sentencing Judge, to approach them again and see if they had softened their views.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, this case is beginning get some traction, Democratic Congressman John Conyers, who's ranking on the House Judiciary Committee, authored a letter to President Obama. The first President you talk about obviously is Bush, not President Obama. But the letter said if the allegations about the Pardon Attorney and his mishandling of this case are proven, we believe the case warrants your immediate reconsideration in his application for clemency. So, do you think this could be effective?
MORISON: Certainly. Certainly. If the President didn't know before, and I assume that he didn't, he knows now what the true facts are. I think Dafna's piece speaks for itself. There is really nothing to confirm. The previous report by the Pardon Attorney didn't accurately convey the views of the Judge and the U.S. Attorney. So, there is no reason... President Obama could solve this problem this afternoon. And if I were advising him, which I'm not, but if he asked my opinion, I would tell him, you know, since you have been elected office, Mr. President, you have had to make a lot of tough decisions. This isn't one of them. There is no reasonable person who really believes that Clarence Aaron deserves to die in prison.
HARRIS-PERRY: Thank you. That is a really - that is a terrific way to put it. That he has made a lot of tough decisions, this is not a hard one. Thank you for joining us.
MORISON: You're welcome.
HARRIS-PERRY: Thank you.