An initial trial ended in a hung jury. Prosecutors offered the 10-year plea deal again, and Clay turned it down again. A second trial resulted in the life sentence.

Prosecutors viewed the sentence as appropriate for what they called a high-level trafficker. Ayn B. Ducao, who handled the case, said at Clay's sentencing that he deserved life because he was a "classic drug-dealing recidivist."

Prosecutors also said Clay was charged long before the new sentencing directive was announced, and it was not retroactive.

But others said putting a much shorter deal on the table raised the question of whether prosecutors believed the outcome was really fair.

"If a prosecutor offers 10 years, that is a declaration that 10 years is reasonable," said Andrew C. White, a former federal prosecutor who new works as a defense attorney. He was not involved in the case.

Going on to win a life sentence, White said, is to some degree a "perversion of the system."

Prosecutors declined this week to discuss the Clay case or its sentencing policies. A prosecutor involved in the case would not explain his strategy to Human Rights Watch, Fellner reported.

Lawyers say such aggressive negotiations, including explicit threats of long sentences, are routine — "like putting your pants on in the morning," White said.

Human Rights Watch says the result is that federal sentences for drug defendants who are convicted at trial receive sentences on average three times longer than those who plead guilty.

In Maryland, 95 percent of drug trafficking cases end in a guilty plea, which is in line with the national average, according to sentencing data the organization analyzed.

"We're told in elementary school that people have a right to a trial by a jury of his peers or her peers," Levin said.

"In reality the exercise of that right is chilled by the threat of a tremendous amount of jail time."