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.
Huckabee's aides have sought to cast Clemmons's release from prison as a collective error of both Arkansas officials and those in Washington state, where he had been released on bail after being charged with assault on a police officer and rape.
While Huckabee repeateadly took responsibility on "The O'Reilly Factor" for commuting Clemmons's sentence, he also called the decision by "Washington judges" to release Clemmons on bond after his recent arrest on a child rape charge "inexcusable."
"There's no explanation for why he was out on the streets," Huckabee said, adding that "certainly there was a pretty good, long history of adult behavior on this guy's part."
Michelle Malkin, a popular conservative blogger, dubbed the situation "Huckabee's Willie Horton," likening it to the convicted killer whose crimes upon his release from prison hurt the 1988 presidential campaign of then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D).
Robert Herzfeld, a former prosecutor in Arkansas who sharply opposed some of Huckabee's clemencies, said, "When you put that many people out of jail, it's inevitable someone is going to commit more crimes."
Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist, said: "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."
Huckabee called such criticism repellent. "It really does show though how sick society has become when we're more interested in the political consequences of an election that's three years away where none of the candidates have even announced -- I've not even given any indication that I'm going to run -- and people are less interested in the fact that funerals haven't even been planned and conducted yet for these four police officers," he told Scarborough. "It is disgusting."
Huckabee won the GOP's Iowa caucuses in 2008 and went on to claim several other key states, but he ultimately lost the party's nomination to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Republicans rank him in polls along with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin as their favorites for the 2012 campaign. A Des Moines Register poll last month showed Huckabee with higher favorable ratings in Iowa than most of the other leading contenders.
This September, Huckabee won a straw poll at the Values Voters Summit in Washington, highlighting his appeal to social conservatives.