How did Maurice Clemmons, once sentenced to 100 years in prison in Arkansas, end up a free man and the prime suspect in the grisly killing of four Seattle area police officers Sunday?
Clemmons’ story begins with a teenage crime spree, winds through his years as a young man spent behind bars and the commutation of his life sentence by Mike Huckabee, continues with more years in and out of prison and the degeneration of his mental state, and finally leaves off today with a massive search for a man police describe as armed and dangerous.
The story carries potentially big political ramifications for possible presidential contender Huckabee, who is now trying to deflect criticism of the commutation to the state parole board. That’s in part because Huckabee’s effort to downplay his role in the Clemmons commutation echoes his response in the case of another Arkansas parolee who went on to commit a gruesome crime.
A May 1989 incident in which Clemmons, then 17, was caught with a gun at a Little Rock school appears to have been his first run in with the police. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette quoted him telling police that he had the gun because he had “been chased and beaten by dopers, and if they got after him again he had something for them” (via Nexis).
Starting almost immediately after his expulsion from school for the gun incident, Clemmons took part in a series of burglaries that landed him in prison. In one late-night incident, a middle-aged woman was hit in the face and Clemmons and another teen snatched her purse. He made the news again when he hid a 10-inch metal bar in his sock before a pretrial hearing, and once again when a padlock he threw at a bailiff hit Clemmons’ own mother.
By the time then-governor Huckabee was mulling a plea for clemency in 2000, Clemmons had spent roughly a decade behind bars, and he pledged he was a changed man. As governor, Huckabee granted pardons and commutations much more than most. According to ABC, many believed it was a religious issue for Huckabee, a Baptist minister.
Clemmons said he came from “a very good Christian family” and “was raised much better than my actions speak (I’m still ashamed to this day for the shame my stupid involvement in these crimes brought to my family name.),” he wrote.
“Where once stood a young (16) year old misguided fool, who’s (sic) own life he was unable to rule. Now stands a 27 year old man, who has learned through ‘the school of hard knocks’ to appreciate and respect the rights of others. And who has in the midst of the harsh reality of prison life developed the necessary skills to stand along (sic) and not follow a multitude of do evil, as I did as a 16 year old child.”
Clemmons added that his mother had recently died without seeing him turn his life around and that he prayed Huckabee would show compassion by releasing him.
In May 2000, citing Clemmons’ youth at the time of his crimes, Huckabee commuted the sentence to 47 years, making Clemmons eligible for parole. The board granted parole in July and Clemmons was released in August, but a year later he was back in prison for another Arkansas robbery. He got a 10-year sentence but in 2004 Clemmons was paroled again. He soon moved to Washington State.
For several years after the move, he apparently avoided run-ins with the police. He next landed in jail earlier this year on a second-degree child rape charge — sex with a minor between the ages of 12 and 14. Just a week before the alleged shooting Sunday, Clemmons got out on $150,000 bail, secured through a bail bondsman. Evidence unearthed in the rape investigation showed an increasingly troubled man who thought he could fly and that President Obama would visit to “confirm that he is the Messiah in the flesh,” according to the Seattle Times.
There are many decision points in Clemmons’ path through the criminal justice system on which blame arguably could, in hindsight, be cast. As the Arkansas Times‘ Max Brantley points out, however, “everything that came after, including Clemmons’ speedy release, flows from [Huckabee’s] decision.”
But Huckabee has sought to place responsibility for the commutation — which, though all the facts are not known, may well have been perfectly reasonable — on the shoulders of the parole board, whose members he appointed and which played a role secondary to the governor himself.
As Ben Smith points out, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Huckabee point to the formal role of the board when a parolee reoffends. The case of Wayne DuMond, which became a problem during Huckabee’s run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, presents a different set of facts, but a similar response from Huckabee.
Convicted of rape in the 1980s, DuMond was paroled in 1997 after Huckabee, who had declined to commute the sentence, lobbied the parole board to free DuMond. Huckabee has persistently denied a role in the board’s decision, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. After his parole, DuMond went on to kill at least one woman in Missouri.
Huckabee is set to appear on the O’Reilly Factor tonight, and scrutiny of his decision will no doubt intensify in the coming days.
Below are the set of Clemmons’ parole and clemency documents, posted by the Seattle Times. Let us know in the comments if you see anything of note: