As governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee had a hand in pardoning or commuting many more prisoners than his three immediate predecessors combined. Maurice Clemmons, the suspect in Sunday's slayings of four Seattle-area police officers, was among them.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — As governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee had a hand in pardoning or commuting many more prisoners than his three immediate predecessors combined. Maurice Clemmons, the suspect in Sunday’s slayings of four Seattle-area police officers, was among them.
As Huckabee considers another run for the White House, Clemmons could become his Willie Horton.
“In a primary between a law-and-order Republican and him, I think it could definitely be a vulnerability,” said Art English, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “It is very damaging when you have someone like that whose sentence was commuted. That’s pretty high profile and very devastating and very tragic.”
English said it’s hard to avoid comparing the case to Horton, a convicted killer who raped a woman and assaulted her fiancé while on release as part of a prison furlough program supported by Michael Dukakis when he was governor of Massachusetts.
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Allies of former President George H.W. Bush ran ads criticizing Dukakis for his support of the program, undermining the Democrat’s presidential campaign.
As recently as Sunday, hours before the shooting suspect was linked to him, Huckabee said he was leaning against running again for president, telling “Fox News Sunday” he was “less likely rather than more likely” to run.
Huckabee is one of the Republican Party’s most popular figures, but he has been dogged by questions over the more than 1,000 commutations and pardons he issued — more than his three predecessors combined — during his 10-year tenure.
During his 2008 presidential campaign, he faced similar questions over the release from prison of a convicted rapist named Wayne DuMond, who was later convicted of another rape and murder.
Huckabee tried then to distance himself from any role in the DuMond parole, and on Sunday he similarly pointed at “a series of failures in the criminal-justice system” regarding Maurice Clemmons.
“If I could have known nine years ago that this guy was capable of something of this magnitude, obviously I would have never granted a commutation. It’s sickening,” Huckabee said Monday during an interview with Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly.
Huckabee joined O’Reilly in criticizing two judges who freed Clemmons, 37, whose bond had been set at $150,000. Clemmons had been in jail in Pierce County for the past several months on a child-rape charge before posting $15,000 with a Chehalis bail bondsman and securing release a few days before the shooting.
Michelle Malkin, a popular conservative blogger, dubbed the situation “Huckabee’s Willie Horton.”
“This story is political quicksand, and if the Republican conservative establishment doesn’t throw him a lifeline immediately, it could be very damaging to a presidential run,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist.
Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, finished second to Sen. John McCain in the Washington state caucuses and went on to claim several other key states, but he ultimately lost the GOP nomination to McCain.
Republicans rank him in polls along with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as their favorites for the 2012 campaign.
Two members of the state parole board said Huckabee pressured them to show DuMond mercy, while Huckabee publicly questioned whether DuMond was guilty of the rape of a teenage girl. During the presidential primaries, a conservative group aired television commercials in South Carolina featuring the mother of Carol Sue Shields, whom DuMond killed in 2000 after his release.
Clemmons’ case packs more potency: The facts of Huckabee’s involvement in the clemency decision are less in dispute, and the crime has played over and over on national television.
“It’s the same issue yet again,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “The difference this time is that Gov. Huckabee would start with greater visibility and higher in the polls, which always enhances and exacerbates any possible criticisms.”
“People might be able to understand one instance,” said Don Sipple, a GOP strategist who stayed neutral in the presidential primaries. “But now you have two difference episodes where he’s shown poor judgment.”
“That’s somebody he probably shouldn’t have” let go free, said Dick Dresner, who helped steer Huckabee’s 2008 presidential bid, noting that Clemmons was not the first convict to “go off the deep end” after being released during Huckabee’s 10-year term.
Prosecutors have said Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher, was more inclined to release or reduce the sentences of prisoners if he had direct contact with them or was lobbied by those close to him. Joe Carter, a staffer on Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign, suggested the former governor may simply be too forgiving.
“Ironically, what makes Huckabee such an appealing presidential candidate — his empathy for all people and genuine belief in the individual — is also the trait that will prevent him from ever reaching the White House,” Carter wrote in a blog post Monday. “… The unfortunate reality is that for politicians, unlike pastors, there are limits to compassion.”
Additional material from The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and The New York Times