Reporting from Washington — Potential Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee gave an impassioned defense Wednesday of his decision to commute the sentence of an Arkansas man who, years later, murdered four police officers in a Seattle-area coffee shop.
The 2009 shooting has been described as a potentially disqualifying vulnerability for Huckabee, who told a group of reporters that he is “seriously contemplating” another presidential run. In 2008, the former Arkansas governor finished second to eventual nominee John McCain in the competition for national convention delegates.
At a question-and-answer session organized by the Christian Science Monitor, Huckabee said he would make the same decision today that he did in 2000, when, as governor, he signed an order that led a parole board to release Maurice Clemmons, despite a history of violence in prison. At the time, Clemmons, 28, was serving a 108-year sentence for robbery and burglary.
Huckabee acknowledged that his decision that led to Clemmons’ freedom “could destroy” his political chances. “Should it?” he asked, then indicated that it should be left for voters to decide.
Clemmons, violence-prone and said to have been plagued with serious mental illness, was sent back to prison in 2001, then released in 2004, when he moved to Washington. He was shot and killed by police two days after the November 2009 murder of four Lakewood, Wash., police officers.
Huckabee argued that if Clemmons, who was black, had been white and able to afford a good defense lawyer, he would never have served a day in prison in Arkansas, and might today be working on Wall Street.
He was “a poor black kid” from a “single-parent home,” said Huckabee, adding that it is the “duty of a governor to correct an injustice”—in this case, what he said was clearly “a disproportionate sentence.”
Huckabee also blamed prosecutors in Washington state and Arkansas for a series of mistakes that allowed Clemmons to remain free after he violated terms of his parole. According to news reports, Clemmons had been held for investigation of child rape after he left prison and had posted $190,000 bail six days before the police shootings.
Huckabee has previously been criticized by potential rivals, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for allowing Clemmons’ release from prison over the objection of prosecutors in Arkansas and relatives of his victims.
Huckabee remarked that, “in politics, every decision you ever make” can be used against an elected official. For a governor with an eye toward higher office, he said, “the smartest move” would be to “not touch any clemency matter.”
Those who do, he said, somewhat heatedly, should “be prepared to take a beating for it.”
In defense of his decision in the Clemmons case, he said, “I don’t read human minds” and said he acted on the basis of a judge’s recommendation that led to the Arkansas man’s release from prison.