LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — As governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee had a hand pardoning or commuting many more prisoners than his three immediate predecessors combined. Maurice Clemmons, the suspect in Sunday's slaying of four Seattle-area police officers, was among them.
For a politician considering another run for the White House, Clemmons could become Huckabee's Willie Horton.
Prosecutors have said Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher, was more inclined to release or reduce the sentences of prisoners if he had direct contact with them or was lobbied by those close to him. Clemmons' letter perhaps appealed to Huckabee's Christian faith.
In his application for clemency, Clemmons wrote that he prayed Huckabee would show him compassion and said at the time of his crimes he had just moved to Arkansas from Seattle. Clemmons also wrote that he had changed his life since "the angel of death has visited and taken away my dear sweet mother."
At Salon, Joe Conason reports that Huckabee has a pattern of releasing violent criminals after interventions by fellow Baptist preachers or professions of Christian faith by the inmates themselves. Wayne Dumond is one such case; in another instance the public outcry was so strong that Huckabee was forced to reverse his decision.
"So if people are wondering why Mike Huckabee took it upon himself to grant clemency to Maurice Clemmons, look for a religious angle," wrote Barbara at Mahablog. "I don't know that there is one, but I'll be surprised if there isn't."
In 1989, Clemmons, then 17, was convicted in Little Rock for aggravated robbery and other charges and sentenced to 108 years. Between 1989 and 1998, Clemmons broke prison rules more than two dozen times – sometimes violently, said state prison system spokeswoman Dina Tyler.
Clemmons didn't stay out long. He was convicted of robbery in Ouachita County in 2001, but was released again in 2004 by the parole board. Little Rock police say Clemmons also faced charges here in 2001 but prosecutors dropped the additional charges when Clemmons was released a second time.
Clemmons also had the backing of Pulaski County Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey, who urged the board to grant clemency. Humphrey later presided over Clemmons' 2004 wedding in his court chambers.
Huckabee cited Humphrey's support Monday and noted local prosecutors didn't object to Clemmons' commutation. Jegley said his office doesn't have any record that the governor notified him of the intention to grant clemency.
"In a primary between a law-and-order Republican and him, I think it could definitely be a vulnerability," said Art English, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "It is very damaging when you have someone like that whose sentence was commuted. That's pretty high profile and very devastating and very tragic."
English said it's hard to avoid comparing the case to Horton, a convicted killer who raped a woman and assaulted her fiance while on release as part of a prison furlough program supported by Michael Dukakis when he was governor of Massachusetts.
Allies of former President George H.W. Bush ran ads criticizing Dukakis for his support of the program, undermining the Democrat's presidential campaign.
As recently as Sunday, hours before the shooting suspect was linked to him, Huckabee said he was leaning against running again for president, telling "Fox News Sunday" he was "less likely rather than more likely" to run.
On Monday, Huckabee said he takes responsibility for making Clemmons eligible for parole in 2000, and called the case a failure of the justice systems in Arkansas and Washington. Huckabee cited the length of Clemmons' sentence – 108 years – and a state judge's recommendation that it be reduced as factors in his decision.
"If I could have known nine years ago that this guy was capable of something of this magnitude, obviously I would have never granted a commutation. It's sickening," Huckabee said on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor."
Clemmons was among 1,033 people who were pardoned or had their sentences reduced during Huckabee's 10 1/2 years as governor. Bill Clinton, Frank White and Jim Guy Tucker granted 507 clemencies in the 17 1/2 years they served. Beebe, Huckabee's Democratic successor, has issued 273 commutations and pardons since taking office in January 2007 – all but one of them were pardons after the completion of the inmates' prison terms.
Huckabee's role in gaining the release of a convicted rapist, Wayne DuMond, was the subject of an attack ad during his presidential run. While Huckabee's predecessor, Tucker, reduced DuMond's sentence making him eligible for parole, Huckabee took steps almost immediately after taking office to win DuMond's release.
Two members of the state parole board said Huckabee pressured them to show DuMond mercy, while Huckabee publicly questioned whether DuMond was guilty of the rape of a teenage girl. During the presidential primaries, a conservative group aired television commercials in South Carolina featuring the mother of Carol Sue Shields, whom DuMond killed in 2000 after his release.
Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley, whose office opposed Clemmons' parole in 2000 and 2004, said Huckabee created a flaw in the Arkansas justice system by freeing the number of prisoners he did.
"(Clemmons) should have stayed locked up like the jury wanted him and we wouldn't even be having this discussion," Jegley said.
"I just have been figuratively holding my breath and hoping something like this wouldn't happen," Jegley said. "I just think that a lot of the people that were subjects of clemency during that period of time were some very dangerous people who didn't need to be let out."
Huckabee said Monday that Clemmons was allowed back on the street because prosecutors "failed to file the paperwork in a timely way." Jegley said the charges were dropped because the warrant wasn't served in a timely manner and because there was trouble locating witnesses to the 2001 robbery.
Jegley called Huckabee's comments "red herrings."
"My word to Mr. Huckabee is man up and own what you did," Jegley said Monday night.
Months after his 2004 release, Clemmons was named as a suspect in an aggravated robbery at a hotel in Little Rock but he was not charged.
Saline County Circuit Judge Robert Herzfeld, who as a prosecutor successfully sued Huckabee over clemency practices, said Huckabee's decision to give Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards a pardon for a 1975 traffic offense after meeting him at a concert showed how lightly the ex-governor approached the practice.
"That just said volumes about how he considered this serious ultimate power over freedom as a joke," Herzfeld said.
(This version CORRECTS Clemmons' 1989 sentence to 108 years, not 95 years.)