Will Washington shooting damage Huckabee bid?

posted at 12:15 pm on November 30, 2009 by Ed Morrissey

How could it not?  It’s the second time that a man granted clemency by Mike Huckabee over the objections of prosecutors has committed a violent act that would have been prevented otherwise.   Maurice Clemmons had his lengthy prison sentence commuted by Huckabee in 2000, despite a lifetime pattern of violent crime and erratic behavior, nine years before Clemmons shot four Seattle police officers to death in a coffee shop:

Maurice Clemmons, the 37-year-old Tacoma man being sought for questioning in the killing this morning of four Lakewood police officers, has a long criminal record punctuated by violence, erratic behavior and concerns about his mental health.

Nine years ago, then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee granted clemency to Clemmons, commuting his lengthy prison sentence over the protests of prosecutors.

“This is the day I’ve been dreading for a long time,” Larry Jegley, prosecuting attorney for Arkansas’ Pulaski County said tonight when informed that Clemmons was being sought for questioning in connection with the killings.

Clemmons’ criminal history includes at least five felony convictions in Arkansas and at least eight felony charges in Washington. The record also stands out for the number of times he has been released from custody despite questions about the danger he posed.

Huckabee, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination last year, issued a statement tonight calling the slaying of the police officers “a horrible and tragic event.”

If Clemmons is found responsible, “it will be the result of a series of failures in the criminal justice system in both Arkansas and Washington State,” Huckabee said.

As Michelle reminds us, it’s not the first time Huckabee had reason to regret his generosity:

New sources, including an advisor to Gov. Mike Huckabee, have told the Arkansas Times that Huckabee and a senior member of his staff exerted behind-the-scenes influence to bring about the parole of rapist Wayne Dumond, who Missouri authorities say raped and killed a woman there shortly after his parole.

Huckabee has denied a role in Dumond’s release, which has become an issue in his race for re-election against Democrat Jimmie Lou Fisher. Fisher says Huckabee’s advocacy of Dumond’s freedom, plus other acts of executive clemency, exhibit poor judgment. In response, Huckabee has shifted responsibility for Dumond’s release to others, claiming former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker made Dumond eligible for parole and saying the Post Prison Transfer Board made the decision on its own to free Dumond.

But the Times’ new reporting shows the extent to which Huckabee and a key aide were involved in the process to win Dumond’s release. It was a process marked by deviation from accepted parole practice and direct personal lobbying by the governor, in an apparently illegal and unrecorded closed-door meeting with the parole board (the informal name by which the Post Prison Transfer Board is known).

Six weeks after his release, Dumond raped and killed Carol Sue Shields, and was suspected of killing Sara Andrasek.  This came up in the 2008 Republican primaries, and Huckabee argued that clemency was a difficult matter to judge.  He also laid off considerable blame on prosecutors and his predecessor at the time, and claimed that he had little to do with the Dumond parole.  He doesn’t have the luxury of that argument with Clemmons.  Huckabee signed the commutation, and he did so over the objections of the prosecutors.

Unfortunately for Huckabee, he has two big political problems now.  First, clemency decisions go directly to judgment, as Michael Dukakis learned the hard way in 1988 with the Willie Horton work-furlough controversy.  In that case, Dukakis didn’t make the decision specifically to let Horton out of prison, but backed the program that did.  In this case, Huckabee personally freed Clemmons, and did so with full knowledge of the risks.  That is a very legitimate reason to question Huckabee’s judgment, and his attempt to back away from that decision in his statement doesn’t speak well to his sense of responsibility, either, although Clemmons’ subsequent release from armed-robbery convictions after his clemency spreads that responsibility around.

Second, before Huckabee can get into a general election, he has to win a nomination — and he has to convince conservatives to back him.  That will be very difficult if Huckabee is seen as weak on crime.  A general election electorate might be more sympathetic to a generous use of executive clemency, but Huckabee won’t find that in a Republican primary, where law and order is one of the central tenets of the GOP.

As soon as Huckabee enters the Republican primaries, expect his opponents to make Maurice Clemmons Exhibit A for an argument against Huckabee’s judgment.  And expect it to be effective.

Update: Joe Carter, who worked for Huckabee’s presidential campaign, has an excellent essay on why Huckabee’s personal strength of charitable action is the reason he will never be President:

Reflections on a politician by former campaign staffers should always be taken cum grano salis. This is no exception. While I’m still a fan of the governor I don’t believe he—nor anyone else from the 2008 primary season (from Palin to Romney to Giuliani to Paul)—has any chance of ever becoming President. Because of this, I don’t feel the need to either defend or condemn him. While the tragic chain of events that were set in place by his signing commutations are not entirely—or even primarily—the fault of the governor, he must bear a sufficient measure of responsibility. …

For instance, the politically prudent tactic would have been to simply refuse to grant any leniency—ever. Other governors with their sights set on higher offices had learned that doing nothing—even to correct obvious instances of injustice—was unlikely to cause any long-term political damage. Keeping an innocent man in prison is less harmful to an ambitious politician than freeing someone who may commit other crimes.

Huckabee would certain discover this political reality the hard way. Initially, I chalked it up solely to extraordinary political courage. Later, I tempered this view when I realized that this courage was mixed with a large dose of cluelessness. The governor seemed genuinely surprised that he was held responsible for the criminal acts committed by those whose sentences he had commuted as governor. It was as if he believed that simply having noble intentions and a willingness to make tough decisions would provide political cover. The notion that he should be accountable for future crimes committed by these men seemed as foreign to him as the idea that he should refuse all leniency.

His naivete about how his actions would be judged was compounded by his own belief in the nobleness of his motives. Huckabee was—and likely remains—a true believer in the concept of restorative justice. Like many politicians who latch onto ideas that support their worldview, however, he was enthusiastic about the general theory while failing to grasp the nuances of its application.

I think Joe nails this.  In my opinion, Huckabee would never have signed off on the commutations if he really believed that he was releasing dangerous men.  The problem is that his judgment on that was flawed, and Huckabee didn’t take the counsel of wiser men on some of these cases.  That goes directly to executive judgment.

Update: Andrew Barr has more about reaction from conservative bloggers, myself included, at Politico.

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