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December 7, 2009

"Why I commuted Maurice Clemmons's sentence"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary authored by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and published in the Washington Post.  Here are a few notable snippets:

Nine years ago, the name Maurice Clemmons crossed my desk. I commuted his sentence from 108 years to 47 years. I take full responsibility for my actions of nine years ago.  I acted on the facts presented to me in 2000.  If I could have possibly known what Clemmons would do nine years later, I obviously would have made a different decision.  If I only had the same information I had then, I would make the same decision....

If the decision is made to grant any form of clemency (the broad term for a commutation or a full pardon), the governor gives notice of intent, and the file is sent to the prosecutor, judge, law enforcement officials, the attorney general and the secretary of state, as well as to the news media. A period of 30 days is allotted for these officials and the public to weigh in, at which point the final decision is rendered.  Despite news reports, no objections were raised during the 30-day response period for this case.  In fact, only letters of support for Clemmons' commutation were received, including one from the circuit judge.

Between 1,000 and 1,200 requests for some form of clemency came to my desk each and every year of the 10 and a half years I was governor.  An overwhelming majority of the time, I denied the requests.  When I did grant them, it was based on the recommendations of all five of the members of the PPTB, with consideration given to input from public officials and my own personal review of each and every file.

Maurice Clemmons was 16 years old when he committed the crimes of burglary and robbery.  He was sentenced to a total of 108 years in prison, dramatically outside the norm for sentencing for the crimes he committed and the age at which he committed them.

In 2000, the PPTB unanimously recommended that his sentence be commuted after he had already served 11 years in prison.  As per the recommendation, I commuted his sentence to the term of 47 years (still a long sentence in comparison to others for the type of crime he had committed), making him parole eligible.  It did not parole him, as governors do not have that power in Arkansas.  He would have to separately apply for parole and meet the criteria for it.

Three months after the commutation, Clemmons met the criteria for parole and was paroled to supervision in late 2000.  When he violated the terms of his parole, he was returned to prison and should have remained behind bars.  For reasons only the prosecutor can explain, he ended up dropping the charges, allowing Clemmons to leave prison and return to supervised parole....

I take responsibility for my actions, but not for the actions of others, nor for the misinformed words of commentators.

The two professions I value most in our society are soldiers and police officers, with firemen and schoolteachers right behind.  The death of the four officers in Lakewood should never have happened.  I wish Maurice Clemmons' file had never crossed my desk.  But it did.  The decision I made is one I now wish could have been made with a view into the future.  That decision would have been different.

None of this is of any comfort to the families of these police officers, nor should it be.  Their loss is senseless.  No words or deeds by anyone will bring them back to their loved ones.  Our system is not perfect, and neither are those responsible for administering it.  The system and those of us who are supposed to make sure it works sometimes get it wrong.  In this case, we clearly did.

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December 7, 2009 at 04:54 PM | Permalink


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Just wondering Mr. Otis, if there is any part of this that you still don't understand?

Posted by: HadEnough | Dec 7, 2009 8:17:45 PM

Huckabee 2012

Posted by: Anon | Dec 7, 2009 8:28:46 PM

HadEnough --

You would do better to ask if there's any part of it I believe.

The answer is yes, some parts, although it is on the whole simply a non-excuse excuse.

What part of D-A-M-A-G-E C-O-N-T-R-O-L do you not understand?

The guy had a major role in letting loose a fellow who killed four cops. But hey, let's thank the good Governor. It could have been five! Or ten! Huckabee's a hero, I tell you.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 7, 2009 9:02:40 PM

Outcome bias and hindsight bias are unfair. However, to the extent he relied on vile, self-dealing criminal lover lawyers to make a decision, rather on people who knew or evaluated Clemmons best, he is partially responsible for this tragedy. He is at least a factor among a dozen clustering to result in this catastrophe.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 7, 2009 9:32:48 PM

"What part of D-A-M-A-G-E C-O-N-T-R-O-L do you not understand?"

Of course it's damage control. But a better question is why is there a need for damage control in the first place. SC is right. Outcome bias and hindsight bias are unfair. If people were fair to Huckabee there would be no damage control needed. Instead, people could spend their energy on improving things rather than finger pointing.

Posted by: Daniel | Dec 7, 2009 10:02:25 PM

Daniel --

"Finger pointing" is the phrase used to denote "accountability" among people who prefer to avoid accountability.

If we were talking here about some prosecutor who hid exculpatory evidence, thus sending to prison an innocent person, there'd be no end of "finger pointing." And properly so.

Assuming arguendo that Huckabee acted in good faith, he is still responsible for his errors. This is especially true when the errors have such grevious consequences.

It is simply not enough to say to the families of the four dead police officers that, "Hey, nobody's perfect. Mistakes are going to be made. Sorry about that."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 7, 2009 10:37:03 PM

Daniel: Improving things. 123D. Start the count at age 14. We would be four officers ahead, one paranoid sociopath less. No repeat violent offender makes it past 18. End of 90% of crime. We transfer the government make work babysitting ultra-violent paranoid sociopath to research and development. The fraction of the GDP devoted to research and creativity should be 20%, that of a high tech enterprise rather than the 1-2% crumbs of today. Cut the entire lawyer enterprise in half to fund research. The revived death penalty based on attrition and on nothing else should begin with the lawyer hierarchy traitors to the Constitution. There would be no doubt about innocence. Their treason, their crimes against humanity are in writing, in their decisions.

Grits may be right about my physical courage. I do not know whether I could dispatch a condemned murderer, if made to do what I propose others do. However, let me at a member of the hierarchy, and I would overcome all distaste to save my country. I may puke on the Justice, but I would shove the plunger without the slightest hesitation or doubt. Scalia. Who here would not press the plunger with the greatest alacrity and enthusiasm?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 7, 2009 10:50:30 PM

"It is simply not enough to say to the families of the four dead police officers that, "Hey, nobody's perfect. Mistakes are going to be made. Sorry about that."

You're right Bill, it's not enough. Nothing will ever be enough to bring those people back to life. But the purpose of the law is not to provide "enough," it's to state the truth. And the truth is that nobody's perfect and mistakes were made. Is that enough? No, never. But I think it's all the law has to offer. If you won't be satisfied with the truth, you need to find answers outside the law.

Posted by: Daniel | Dec 8, 2009 2:20:05 AM

Finally. But . . . Huchakee still doesn't get it.

Huckabee's original statement regarding the murders and rapes lacked all leadership qualities and reflected a whiney, blame everybody else attitude and still used in his latest.

Had Huckabee not commuted 4 officers would still be alive and two children would not have been raped.

Huckabee knew when he commuted to 47 years that Clemmons would be immediately (or very soon thereafter) released. Huckabee continues the "well it wasn't just my responsibility to release him."

How about the buck absolutely stopped with Huckabee. All other release decisions were solely based upon Huckabee granting commutation.

Clemmons could not/would not have been released absent Huckabee's approval and 4 cops would still be alive and 2 children would not have been raped.


This is not about Huckabee making a horrible error, because all parole boards and governors make these same types of horrible mistakes. All governors and parole boards have made or will make early release errors which result in innocents dying.

This is about the pathetic manner in which Huckabee handled himself after this tragedy occurred. Now, it is just about Huckabee's damage control, because he didn't man up in the very beginning and he's still showing his lack of leadership.

We all know a bunch of folks screwed up and contributed to this mess. But only one of those folks was the governor of a state who ran for president. Leadership is the key. That key went missing.

It still is.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Dec 8, 2009 6:18:15 AM

I'd like to note that we don't need hindsight to realize that hiding/suppressing exculpatory evidence is wrong and contrary to the law. Such action is wrong and a mistake at the time it is taken. This is one of several factors differentiating it from a commutation decision.

In my view, commutation is more like a decision to prosecute. The decision maker is charged with exercising discretion within certain guidelines. Mistakes will be made. If a prosecutor declines to prosecute someone, and that person later commits murder, we may view the prosecutor's earlier action as a mistake, and hold him accountable in the political/public arena, but we don't put him in jail or subject him to legal liability.

Posted by: Anon | Dec 8, 2009 10:00:08 AM

Commutation and a decision to prosecute are nothing alike. A decision to prosecute is a de novo decision, many times a case of first impression.

Commutation is a decision to undo what has been lawfully determined, after all appeals have been exhausted.

Commutations should be very rare events. If Huckabee was reviewing over 1,000 requests for clemency each year of his administration, something is wrong with the justice system in Arkansas.

Posted by: mjs | Dec 8, 2009 10:15:47 AM

This might be the first Republican I vote for in my lifetime.

Posted by: mpb | Dec 8, 2009 12:46:40 PM

mbp --

Fear not. Your record will remain pristine. You won't be voting for Huckabee because Huckabee won't be running for anything. His campaign is as dead as the four cops.

If you feel absolutely compelled to vote for a Republican, however, try Arlen Specter. Oh, wait, he's not a Republican anymore. At least I don't think he is; I haven't checked the morning news yet.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 8, 2009 1:12:21 PM

bill: "You won't be voting for Huckabee because Huckabee won't be running for anything"

me: i wouldn't count him out. the republicans still have a shortage of attractive and viable candidates for 2012, and huckabee's base is among the religious right. the christian right base is not necessarily in line with the "lock em up and throw away the keys" attitude. huckabee's base in the rural midwest and south is also much more likely to have negative experiences or family experiences with the police and the criminal justice system than the urban/suburban/country club republicans.

if huckabee doesn't run its because he's decided that he'd rather make more money for less stress on fox news - not because he isn't a viable candidate.

Posted by: virginia | Dec 8, 2009 2:00:38 PM

Ginny --

I know a few Republicans, having been a political appointee in the Bush Justice Department, and having co-hosted fundraisers for one candidate or another since leaving. This does not make me an expert, but it gives me a pretty close-up view.

The religious right is not the force in Republican politics you take it to be. The elections last month and the exit polling therefrom made it pelucidly clear that what wins for Republicans is (1) the growing and justified alarm about endless debt; (2) relatedly, spending money we don't have to fund yet more unsustainable entitlements; (3) a gargantuan federal government that borrows so much that private sector borrowing, and thus job creation, becomes much more difficult; and (4) a sense the the current Administration is irresolute and uncertain in dealing with foreign threats.

Republicans have been taught the winning formula. It accommodates religiously active people (just as the Democrats accommodate labor unions), but focuses elsewhere.

Huckabee's base has nowhere to go. He's done, believe me.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 8, 2009 4:21:25 PM

Bill Otis: Your precis of Republican values is spot-on.

Posted by: mjs | Dec 8, 2009 6:58:33 PM

Surprising how social issues was not listed among those Republican campaign points, especially since it seems to be a major factor in many campaigns and Republican public statements.

As to spending, local Republicans around here along with national ones are unsurprisingly often not willing to make the hard choices to deal with debt. Not saying Dems do a great job at that either, or that cynically talking about debt issues (while supporting things that raise them, if different from Democrats in various situations) is not a valuable campaign device.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 8, 2009 7:13:40 PM

bill "The elections last month and the exit polling therefrom made it pelucidly clear that what wins for Republicans is [having the Democrats in control with a bad economy and very low voter turnout especially among minority voters and the young]"

corrected for accuracy, sweetie :)

you really get to get outside of the beltway and go to the "real america" which your side always claims to represent. while you are accurate that the religious right represents small numbers, they are very well organized and tend to be very concentrated in certain areas - and the primary system as it sets up gives undue power to primarily rural states and the south. if the religious right was as powerless as you'd like to pretend, why would mccain choose a laughably unqualified almost completely unknown governor of a small state to be his running mate? obviously, it didn't work - the religious right still didn't like mccain.

you republicans hate to admit it, but you depend on the christian right to win elections. maybe you can win in the northeast or the west without them, but in the south and midwest - and at the presidential election.

and maybe you should look at the actual election results before you crow too much about last month's "big" victory. here they are in virginia - https://www.voterinfo.sbe.virginia.gov/election/DATA/2009/37C2EDEB-FACB-44C1-AF70-05FB616DCD62/official/2_s.shtml - looks like a big impressive, republican win, right? now, compare at the 2008 results in my namesake state - https://www.voterinfo.sbe.virginia.gov/election/DATA/2008/07261AFC-9ED3-410F-B07D-84D014AB2C6B/Official/1_s.shtml

in the south and rural midwest, "God" has replaced "race" - but the ultimate result is the same - creating wedge issues to cause poor whites to vote against their own economic interest. of course, you will deny it, and may even believe it because you have spend your intire life trying to insolate yourself from the people who you depend on their votes to keep yourself in power.

and its nice that you are now against deficits - where were you when reagan, bush, and bush were running up huge deficits? is it okay because they were giving the money to the wealthy (banks, defense contractors)?

Posted by: virginia | Dec 9, 2009 9:47:34 AM

Ginny --

Your post is so overwrought with your by-now signature obsession with the "religious right" that it's getting repetitive for me to respond. So I'll take only a few points and let it go.

First, you are no position to know about the workings of the Republican Party. Your view of it looks to be cut-and-pasted from MoveOn.org or Mother Jones. Don't hand me a lecture about something about which I have first-hand knowledge and you have none.

Second, you "correct for accuracy" my list of reasons the Republicans won the recent elections without so much as claiming, much less showing, that the list was inaccurate. If a point be made of it, though, no one stopped minorities or young people from going to the polls. There was a reason they didn't go, and that was that a year of this amateurish, no-results, partisan and ideological administration has taught them some lessons, as it has taught other voter groups (most notably independents) lessons (but apparently not you).

Obama hit a new low today in job approval according to Gallup. Is that too the work of Jerry Falwell? (Gee, now that I think of it, didn't Jerry die a few years back?).

"[I]f the religious right was as powerless as you'd like to pretend, why would mccain choose [Sarah Palin] to be his running mate? obviously, it didn't work - the religious right still didn't like mccain."

HELLO!!!!!! If the religious right were as powerful as you like to pretend, HOW DID McCAIN GET THE NOMINATION TO BEGIN WITH?

Let me guess. It was a vast right-wing conspiracy. Oh, wait, no, it couldn't have been that, since, as you yourself point out, the right didn't like McCain. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm....must have been sunspots.

"and maybe you should look at the actual election results before you crow too much about last month's 'big' victory."

And maybe you should take your own advice. The actual election results were that Republican Gov.-elect McDonnell won by 17.5% Last year, Democrat Obama won by 7%. That is a one-year statewide swing toward the Republicans of a staggering 24.5%. It was also a greater margin of victory than for Mark Warner and Tim Kaine COMBINED.

"[A]nd its nice that you are now against deficits - where were you when reagan, bush, and bush were running up huge deficits? is it okay because they were giving the money to the wealthy (banks, defense contractors)?"

It's past time for the frothing-at-the-mouth wing of the Democratic Party to take responsibility for your own governance. You've had Congress for three years and the Presidency for one, and your rate of deficit increase exceeds by staggering proportions any peacetime deficit increase in the history of the Republic. The profligacy of it is mind-boggling. Independent voters caught onto this and flipped, so now you're in hot water and, thus, STILL trying to run against George Bush (and apparently in your case,
Ronald Reagan too).

My goodness.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 9, 2009 11:41:41 PM

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