Huckabee had pardoned slaying suspect

Action may affect any ambitions for presidency

PROBLEMATIC PARDON Maurice Clemmons wrote to Mike Huckabee (left) that he had simply fallen in with a bad crowd as a teenager. PROBLEMATIC PARDON
Maurice Clemmons wrote to Mike Huckabee (left) that he had simply fallen in with a bad crowd as a teenager.
By Kate Zernike
New York Times / December 1, 2009

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NEW YORK - When Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister then serving as governor of Arkansas, granted clemency to Maurice Clemmons nine years ago, he cited his age: Clemmons was 16 when he began the crime spree for which he was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison.

Now, Clemmons is being sought as the suspect in the killing of four uniformed police officers, execution-style, as they sat in a coffee shop Sunday near Tacoma, Wash., writing reports.

Huckabee, now a Fox News talk show host, has been leading the pack of possible Republican contenders for president in 2012. But the killings of the police officers are focusing renewed attention on his long-contentious record of pardoning convicts or commuting their sentences.

In a decade as governor beginning in 1996, Huckabee did so twice as many times as his three predecessors combined. He typically gave little explanation for individual pardons. But he spoke often of his belief in redemption, based on a strong religious faith that even criminals are capable of changing their lives and often deserve a second chance. He also raised concerns about the fairness of the Arkansas justice system.

The commutation of Clemmons’s sentence was routine enough that it failed to make a list of Huckabee’s 10 “most publicized’’ prison commutations compiled by an Arkansas newspaper in August 2004. And as in many cases where parole goes bad, it is difficult to pin responsibility for this week’s crimes solely on Huckabee, because many others made decisions that kept Clemmons out of prison.

Clemmons had been convicted for burglaries and robberies that began in 1989, and would not have been eligible for parole until 2021. He applied for clemency in 2000, writing in a petition to Huckabee that he had simply fallen in with a bad crowd in a bad neighborhood as a teenager, and that he “had learned through the ‘school of hard knocks’ to appreciate and respect the rights of others.’’

Huckabee commuted his sentence, making him eligible for immediate parole. Clemmons violated the conditions of his parole within six months, returning to prison in July 2001 for aggravated robbery.

When he was paroled again by the state in 2004, the police in Little Rock served a warrant on him related to a 2001 robbery. But a lawyer for Clemmons argued that too much time had elapsed since the warrant was issued, and prosecutors dropped the charges.

Huckabee, who rode a brand of prairie populism in the Republican presidential primaries in 2008, granted more than 1,000 pardons or clemency requests as governor. As his reputation for granting clemency spread, more convicts applied. Aides said he read each file personally.

In the majority of cases, he followed the recommendation of the state parole board, but in several cases he overrode the objections of prosecutors, judges, and victims’ families. And in several, he followed recommendations for clemency from Baptist preachers who had been his longtime supporters.

Prosecutors told him he was ignoring his responsibility to explain to citizens why he was setting free convicted murderers and rapists. His response, some of them say, was to blame others and strike out against his critics - an off-note from a man they consider a gifted politician.

With Clemmons, political consultants say Huckabee may have hit his Willie Horton moment.

“As a front-runner, obviously with circumstances like this, it’s out there as a big issue,’’ said Ed Rollins, the manager of Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Should Huckabee run in 2012, there are many prosecutors and victims’ advocates in Arkansas who say they are ready to argue to the national news media that this is just one of the cases where Huckabee ignored good judgment and a stubborn history of criminal behavior in granting clemency. An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette review found that nearly one in ten prisoners who received clemency from Huckabee later were back in prison.

Through a spokeswoman, Huckabee declined requests for an interview, but a statement on the website of his political action committee said that should Clemmons be found responsible, “it will be the result of a series of failures in the criminal justice system in both Arkansas and Washington State.’’