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Editorial

In Mike Huckabee's defense

While governor of Arkansas in 2000, he played a role in the early release of the suspected killer of four Seattle-area police officers. But he could not have anticipated the slayings.

December 03, 2009

According to many pundits, the four police officers shot to death Sunday in Parkland, Wash., aren't the only victims of alleged killer Maurice Clemmons. Also wounded in the attack, perhaps fatally, was Mike Huckabee's political career.

Huckabee, a presidential candidate last year who was considered a front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2012, is one of the reasons Clemmons was on the street Sunday. While governor of Arkansas in 2000, Huckabee commuted Clemmons' 108-year sentence. That has prompted comparisons to Willie Horton, a convicted Massachusetts killer who escaped while participating in a weekend furlough program that had been championed by then-Gov. Michael Dukakis, later committing rape and assault. Dukakis' opponent in the 1988 presidential race, George H.W. Bush, missed few opportunities to invoke Horton's name.

It would be a shame if that happened to Huckabee. He made some questionable decisions about clemency for inmates during his term as governor, in some cases ignoring the objections of legal experts. But in Clemmons' case, he seems to have had legitimate grounds for concern about whether justice was being served.

Clemmons was 16 years old when he committed the string of robberies and burglaries that resulted in his 1989 conviction, and his sentence was astonishingly harsh for such a young perpetrator. A county circuit judge supported Clemmons' application for clemency a decade later. Huckabee made Clemmons immediately eligible for parole by cutting his sentence in half, but the decision to set him free was made by the parole board. It's unreasonable to expect Huckabee to have anticipated the events in Parkland nine years later.

Releasing inmates before they've completed their terms is a politically risky decision, but that doesn't make it wrong. Sometimes sentences are unfair, or inmates cease to pose any threat to society. All too many governors are afraid to exercise their authority even in these cases. One such is former California Gov. Gray Davis, who during his five years in office vetoed parole for all but eight of 294 convicted murderers who had been deemed rehabilitated and fit for release by his parole board. We suspect Davis was more concerned with covering his political backside than protecting the public; the same goes for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who declined to halt the execution of a convicted arsonist in 2004 despite convincing evidence that he was innocent.

The attacks on Huckabee will only persuade more governors to imitate the likes of Davis and Perry. That won't improve the criminal justice system, nor further the cause of justice.

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