Maurice Clemmons would likely still be sitting in an Arkansas prison cell if he hadn't convinced former Gov. Mike Huckabee and that state's parole board that he'd reformed while behind bars for a teenage crime spree.
Maurice Clemmons likely would still be sitting in an Arkansas prison cell if he hadn’t convinced former Gov. Mike Huckabee and the state’s parole board that he’d reformed while behind bars for a teenage crime spree.
Clemmons, a suspect in Sunday’s slaying of four Lakewood police officers, had been sentenced to about 100 years in prison for several felonies, including bringing a gun to school and a robbery in which he punched a woman in the face.
He would not have been eligible for parole until 2015 or later, according to Arkansas court documents and prosecutors.
But Clemmons was set free in 2000 — over the objections of prosecutors — after Huckabee commuted the long prison sentence, making him immediately eligible for parole.
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In his appeal to Huckabee, Clemmons apologized for his actions but complained he’d received overly harsh sentences.
Clemmons said he started his crime spree at 16, after he had moved from Seattle to a high-crime neighborhood in Arkansas.
“I succumbed to the peer pressure and the need I had to be accepted by other youth in my new environment and fell in with the wrong crowd and thus began a seven month crime spree which led me to prison,” Clemmons wrote in his clemency application to Huckabee.
“Good Christian family”
Clemmons wrote he came from “a very good Christian family” and “was raised much better than my actions speak … .”
In a 1989 aggravated robbery, Clemmons, 17 at the time, and two accomplices accosted a woman at midnight in the parking lot of a Little Rock hotel bar and robbed her of $16 and a credit card.
The woman, Karen Hodge, testified at trial that Clemmons threatened her by pretending to have a gun in his pocket. “Give me your purse or I’m going to shoot you,” he told her.
Hodge, who’d had a glass of scotch, responded, “Well … why don’t you just shoot?” Clemmons punched her in the head and tore the purse off her shoulder, according to court records.
He was sentenced to 35 years in prison for that incident.
In his appeal for clemency, Clemmons said he had changed.
“Where once stood a young … misguided fool, who’s (sic) own life he was unable to rule. Now stands a 27 year old man, who has learned through ‘the school of hard knocks’ to appreciate and respect the rights of others. And who has in the midst of the harsh reality of prison life developed the necessary skills to stand along (sic) and not follow a multitude to do evil, as I did as a 16 year old child.”
Clemmons added that his mother had recently died without seeing him turn his life around and that he prayed Huckabee would show compassion by releasing him.
His clemency application was supported by Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Marion Humphrey, who cited Clemmons’ youth at the time of his crimes and called his cumulative sentence excessive. Clemmons’ release was unanimously approved by the parole board.
The Pulaski County prosecutor’s office twice objected to parole recommendations for Clemmons.
“For us to prosecute a 17-year-old, and for him to get a 95-year sentence without a homicide — you’ve got to be a bad little dude to draw that kind of a sentence,” said Mark Fraiser, who prosecuted the early cases against Clemmons in Pulaski County.
Clemmons had insisted on separate trials for each charge, Fraiser said, and the judge who presided over the cases had a strong tendency to issue consecutive sentences that reflected the judgment of jurors in each case.
Clemmons “had an obvious propensity for future violence,” Fraiser said Monday. “To wake up this morning and turn on the news and hear his name, I can’t even imagine the suffering of those families and the suffering of people in those communities.”
Humphrey said Monday he remembers Clemmons and believed he was genuinely remorseful and wanted to change.
“I figure young people make some mistakes,” he said. Also a Presbyterian minister, Humphrey said he believes in giving people a second chance.
Humphrey in 2004 also officiated Clemmons’ wedding, according to a copy of the marriage certificate.
“It would be the furthest thing from my mind that he would go out and kill four police officers, if in fact he did,” Humphrey said.
Huckabee also cited Clemmons’ young age at the time of his crimes in an official proclamation commuting his sentence. The proclamation said Clemmons faced a 95-year sentence but corrections officials in that state said he likely would have served far less than that.
The proclamation was one of 1,033 commutations and pardons Huckabee issued during his more than 10 years as governor. That’s about twice the number issued by his three predecessors combined.
Back in prison
Clemmons was released from prison in August 2000 but was sent back on a parole violation — a robbery charge — in July 2001, according to Dina Tyler, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Corrections.
He received a 10-year sentence, Tyler said, but records show he was paroled again in March 2004.
Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley said that by his count, Clemmons should have been in jail until 2021.
“Mr. Huckabee made him parole-eligible 21 years before he would have been,” Jegley said.
Clemmons’ volatile behavior in court gave officials little reason to show leniency.
“He was one you always kept an eye on,” said W.A. McCormick, chief deputy for Jegley in the years Clemmons was prosecuted. “You just wanted to keep your distance with him in the courtroom.”
Fraiser recalled how Clemmons dismantled a pneumatic metal door stop and hid it in his sock, possibly to use as a weapon. A bailiff discovered it and took it away.
A judge also accused Clemmons of threatening him, and, in yet another case, Clemmons took a lock from his holding cell and threw it at a bailiff, missing him and hitting Clemmons’ mother instead.
Clemmons moved to Washington state in 2004 while still on parole, a move approved by Arkansas authorities. He spent the past several months in jail on a child-rape charge but was released last week after arranging for a bail-bond company to post his $150,000 bond. His release here came despite seven other pending felony charges, according to court records.
Huckabee, a Republican presidential contender in 2008, issued a statement Sunday night mourning the deaths of the Lakewood police officers and saying that if Clemmons is responsible “it will be the result of a series of failures in the criminal justice system in both Arkansas and Washington state.”
Huckabee noted that Clemmons’ release was approved by the parole board and that prosecutors in Arkansas failed to file additional charges against Clemmons after his parole violation in 2001, which could have extended his time in prison.
“If I could have known nine years ago and could have looked into the future, would I have acted favorably upon the parole board’s recommendation? Of course not,” Huckabee told Fox News Radio on Monday.
Tuesday, Huckabee said that some of the criticism he’s received for commuting the sentence is “disgusting” and the situation was being used as a political weapon against him.
In an interview on Joe Scarborough’s radio show on WABC-AM in New York, Huckabee said that the focus should be on the families of the four slain officers.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or email@example.com