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By David Waters
Was Mike Huckabee acting as a governor or a pastor when he commuted the decades-long sentence of Maurice Clemmons, now wanted for questioning in Sunday’s slaying of four police officers in Washington state? (Update: Clemmons was shot and killed by police Tuesday.)
Huckabee, a Southern Baptist pastor who was Arkansas governor from 1996-2007, commuted Clemmons’ sentence in 2000, 10 years after he received a 60-year sentence for burglary and theft. Clemmons already was serving 48 years on five felony convictions and facing up to 95 more years on charges of robbery, theft of property and possessing a handgun on school property.
In his bid for clemency, Clemmons noted that he was just a teenager when he committed the crimes. He also said that he was from “a very good Christian family” and expressed shame for what he had done. “…the angel of death has visited and taken away my dear sweet mother, and this more than anything has effected change for the good in my heart,” he wrote. “Because now I have to live with all that I put her through I wasn’t able to be with her and make her proud of me before she passed away. I have never done anything good for God, but I’ve prayed for him to grant me in his compassion the grace to make a start. Now I’m humbly appealing to you for a brand-new start.”
News accounts say that in commuting the sentence, Huckabee cited Clemmons’ young age at the time the crimes were committed. In a statement on his PAC website late Sunday, Huckabee condemned the killings, and said many share responsibility for Clemmons’s release. “Should he be found to be responsible for this horrible tragedy, it will be the result of a series of failures in the criminal justice system in both Arkansas and Washington State,” the statement read. (On Monday, Huckabee accepted responsibility for the commutation.)
Huckabee’s motives for granting commutations and pardons were questioned in 2007 when he began his campaign for the Republican nomination for president.
In a 2007 story, the Associated Press noted that Huckabee granted 1,033 pardons and commutations in his 10 1/2 years as governor of Arkansas. The acts of clemency benefited the stepson of a staff member, murderers who worked at the governor’s mansion, a rock star and inmates who received good words from their pastors.
“It seems to be true at least anecdotally that if a minister is involved, (Huckabee) seems likely to grant clemency,” prosecutor Robert Herzfeld said in 2004 after successfully battling the then-governor over the release of a killer.
Also in 2007, Garrick Feldman of the Arkansas Leader raised questions about a convicted killer named Glen Green, who was granted clemency by Huckabee. “Huckabee may not have realized it,” he wrote, “but every prisoner knew how to get on the governor’s good side. Call it Huckabee’s religion test. It’s a sure ticket to freedom: Tell him you’ve found religion.”
That same year, syndicated columnist Joe Conason noted that Huckabee had used his authority to grant more commutations and pardons than any governor in the previous 40 years. “It isn’t clear how Huckabee’s Baptist outlook influenced his decisions on taxes, education or transportation, but his record in granting clemency and pardons demonstrates the dangers of religious zealotry in power,” Conason wrote of what he called Huckabee’s “misplaced mercy.”
Huckabee is no zealot, but should any public official allow his or her religious beliefs or sensibilities to influence such decisions?