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States point fingers over Maurice Clemmons' release

Washington and Arkansas officials trade blame over how the man accused in the deaths of four Seattle-area police officers came to be free.

December 05, 2009|By Kim Murphy

Reporting from Seattle — Officials in Washington and Arkansas have been trading charges over who was responsible for the release of Maurice Clemmons, accused of killing four Seattle-area police officers while out on bail last weekend.

Clemmons had a long history of committing violent crimes, and records released this week show prosecutors and corrections officials in Washington were urgently trying to make sure he remained behind bars. But, they said, they were thwarted by Arkansas' refusal to take Clemmons back and by Washington's bail laws.

"We wanted to keep him in custody, absolutely. We would have been willing to get on an airplane and fly him back to Arkansas where he belonged," Pierce County Sheriff's Det. Ed Troyer said in an interview. "But they quashed the warrant."

Six months before Clemmons allegedly ambushed the Lakeland, Wash., officers while they were having their morning coffee, he had been arrested on charges of assaulting a police officer and second-degree rape of a child.

A provision in the state constitution requires reasonable bail for all offenders except those who have committed capital offenses. A judge set Clemmons' bail at $150,000 on the rape charge and $40,000 more on the assault charge. Under Washington's three-strikes law, he could have faced a life prison term.

E-mails released by the Washington Department of Corrections reveal that police in Pierce County had warned it "would not be easy" for them to re-arrest the 37-year-old Tacoma landscaper if he made bail because "Mr. Clemmons did not like them."

In July, with the possibility that Clemmons might be able to post bond, Washington officials asked Arkansas to issue a no-bail "abscond" warrant because he was alleged to have violated his parole from that state.

Arkansas complied, but -- to the exasperation of prosecutors, police and corrections officials in Washington -- later decided to drop the warrant.

"Please provide your justification for canceling the abscond warrant. . . . I'm concerned that you have no problem releasing your offender into our community, based on his behavior," a Washington corrections official said in an e-mail to counterparts in Arkansas. "I thought [the interstate agreement on parolee supervision] was all about community safety."

Arkansas then issued a second, weaker warrant that did not seek a no-bail hold or Clemmons' return. Instead it offered to allow Washington to continue supervising him.

At that point, prosecutors and police were reduced to hoping Clemmons would not be able to make bail. But in November his relatives came up with $40,000 in cash and offered their homes as collateral for the remaining amount -- enough to secure his release.

"Who would have thought the entire family would have gotten together and raised $150,000?" Troyer said. "And the family that got him out of jail is the same group of people that helped him after he committed these acts of murder."

So far, six friends and family members have been arrested on charges of helping Clemmons bandage his gunshot wound and evade arrest after the officers were shot in a Parkland, Wash., coffee shop.

Gov. Chris Gregoire announced this week that Washington would no longer accept parolees from Arkansas. But after a phone conversation Thursday with Gov. Mike Beebe, she said the two would work together to improve the interstate pact that governs parolees across the nation.

Beebe's spokesman, Matt DeCample, said it was natural that Arkansas officials would cancel the original warrant when they learned Clemmons was in jail and no longer a fugitive. The second warrant the state issued at Washington's request, DeCample said, should have been enough to hold Clemmons until the charges against him were adjudicated.

"That's ludicrous," said Scott Blonien, assistant secretary for government and community compliance at the Washington Department of Corrections. "It's clear from the e-mails that we sent out that we were concerned about community safety. . . . There's a number of heated pleas from Washington state to Arkansas to please issue the warrant, and they didn't."

The second warrant, he said, "was a little bit like ordering something over the Internet, and you get a package, and not only is it delivered to the wrong address, it's not what you ordered."

There is talk of an amendment to Washington's constitution allowing defendants to be held without bail not only for capital crimes, but also for cases in which they face a life prison term.

"Those are the folks that are likely to abscond, most likely to retaliate against victims, most likely to intimidate witnesses, because they've got their life at stake," said Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Assn. of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

"What we'd like to do is make it easy for the judges to say, 'In these cases, no bail is appropriate,' " he said, adding that the issue cannot be debated until the Legislature reconvenes in January.

"Everybody wants to saddle up now and do something. But let's pay our respects to the officers, and then have a quiet, effective and reasoned look at what occurred, and see if there are some things that will actually improve the situation," he said. "This may be one of those cases where evil people do evil things. We don't live in a fail-safe society."

kim.murphy@latimes.com

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