After police killings, Huckabee defends clemency for suspect

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee explains why he commuted the sentence of Maurice Clemmons, suspected of shooting police officers in Washington State before being killed by authorities. (Dec. 1)
By Perry Bacon Jr. and Garance Franke-Ruta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 1, 2009; 5:14 PM

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee on Tuesday defended his decision to commute the prison sentence years ago of the man who allegedly killed four police officers Sunday near Tacoma, Wash., saying the defendant had received an unfairly harsh sentence because he was young and black.

The comments in a radio interview came a day after Huckabee accepted responsibility for the decision and said "it's not something I'm happy about at this particular moment."

The killings have renewed scrutiny of Huckabee's pardon record, and some prominent conservatives say the episode could be damaging to his candidacy if Huckabee decides to run for president in 2012. Though one of the Republican Party's most popular figures, Huckabee 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.

"If I could have known nine years ago this guy was capable of something of this magnitude, obviously I would never have granted a commutation," he told Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly on Monday night. "It's sickening."

Maurice Clemmons was convicted in Arkansas in 1989 of robbery and theft, and he was serving a 108-year prison term when Huckabee commuted it to 47 years in 2000, making Clemmons eligible for parole.

"That was the commutation," Huckabee told O'Reilly. "I'm responsible for that. And it's not something I'm happy about at this particular moment."

The Arkansas parole board subsequently released him from prison.

After the Sunday shootings, a massive manhunt ended Tuesday when a police officer fatally shot Clemmons. He was carrying a handgun that had been taken from one of the slain officers, police said.

On Tuesday, Huckabee defended his decision to commute Clemmons' sentence during a call to "The Joe Scarborough Show" on 77 WABC radio in New York. If his critics had been there in the governor's mansion, Huckabee said, "They would have seen a 16-year-old kid commit crimes of which normally, there would have been a few years. And if he'd been white and middle-class with a good lawyer he'd have gotten probation, a fine and some counseling. But because he was a young black kid, he got 108 years!"

"People don't go to prison for murder" with that sort of sentence, Huckabee said.

In his 2008 presidential campaign, Huckabee faced similar questions over the release from prison of convicted rapist Wayne DuMond, who was convicted of another rape and a 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 Clemmons.

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