As Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, shown last year, issued an unusually… (Eric Gay / Associated Press )
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee broke his silence Monday and defended his decision to support freedom for a convict now wanted in the ambush slayings of four Seattle-area police officers. "If I could have known nine years ago that this guy was capable of something of this magnitude, obviously I would never have granted the commutation," Huckabee said.
FOR THE RECORD:
Police shooting: An article in Tuesday's Section A about the shooting deaths of four Lakewood, Wash., police officers and another about former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's granting of clemency to suspect Maurice Clemmons said that Clemmons was released from jail a week before the attack on $15,000 bond. Clemmons was released after putting $15,000 toward his bond, which was $150,000. —
But even those sympathetic to the former governor suggested that the case of Maurice Clemmons would most likely hurt Huckabee's candidacy should he seek the White House again in 2012.
"That's somebody he probably shouldn't have" freed, said Dick Dresner, who helped steer Huckabee's 2008 presidential bid, noting that Clemmons was not the first convict to "go off the deep end" after being released during Huckabee's 10-year term.
The ex-governor issued an unusually high number of paroles and commutations during his time in office, a practice that became an issue in the 2008 race when critics seized on the case of Wayne DuMond, a convicted rapist who murdered and raped again after being freed in 1999. The attacks did not keep Huckabee from winning the Iowa caucuses and finishing second in the GOP nominating fight.
But Huckabee could face much more serious political problems if Clemmons -- who remained at large Monday, the subject of a sprawling manhunt -- is implicated in Sunday's police shooting. In 2000, Huckabee commuted a sentence of 108 years given to Clemmons for a crime spree.
"People might be able to understand one instance," said Don Sipple, a GOP strategist who stayed neutral in the presidential primaries. "But now you have two different episodes where he's shown poor judgment."
Huckabee posted a statement on his website Sunday, saying that if Clemmons was found responsible for the police killings "it will be the result of a series of failures in the criminal justice system in both Arkansas and Washington state."
He elaborated somewhat during a brief appearance on Fox News. Under the sympathetic questioning of commentator Bill O'Reilly, Huckabee said he granted Clemmons' clemency request -- one of 1,200 that crossed his desk annually -- because of Clemmons' young age at the time of his conviction and the severity of his sentence. He said prosecutors never contacted him, though they did lodge a protest with the state parole board.
Huckabee joined O'Reilly in criticizing two judges who freed Clemmons, 37, after he posted $15,000 bond just a few days before the slayings. He had been jailed on charges of second-degree rape in a case involving his wife's daughter.
"By this point this guy's a career criminal with an escalating sense of violence and psychotic behavior," Huckabee said. "There's no explanation for why he was out on the streets."
Clemmons was convicted in Arkansas of aggravated robbery, burglary and possession of a firearm for a crime spree he embarked upon at age 16; at his sentencing, he threw a padlock from his holding cell that missed a bailiff and hit his mother. In 1999, Clemmons applied for clemency and asked for a lower sentence, making him eligible for parole.
"Where once stood a young . . . 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," Clemmons wrote.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey supported the clemency application. Humphrey said Monday that Clemmons had a good demeanor and seemed a promising candidate for rehabilitation. In 2000, Huckabee cut Clemmons' sentence in half, making him immediately eligible for parole.
"It's not unreasonable to give him a second chance," Humphrey said. "I believe that's the spirit in which then-Gov. Huckabee acted."
Not long after his release, Clemmons was convicted of robbery and returned to prison. He was supposed to serve until 2015. However, in 2004 the state parole board unanimously granted Clemmons parole, after his then-fiancee told them that "when he left the first time he was not ready." There is no record of Huckabee interceding.
According to a study by the Associated Press, Huckabee issued more than twice as many pardons and commutations in his 10 years in office than his three predecessors did in the previous 17 years. The most notorious case, up until Sunday, involved DuMond, who was convicted in 1985 of raping a 17-year-old high school cheerleader. The victim was a distant cousin of Bill Clinton and some conservative activists claimed DuMond was framed by the former Arkansas governor.