In Fairness to Huckabee

Maurice Clemmons, the man pictured on the right, was a hot topic last week. He killed four policemen in the Seattle area, then was himself killed by a policeman after a successful manhunt.

Controversy has focused on former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who, it turns out, as governor of Arkansas commuted a sentence for Clemmons when he was in prison in Arkansas. That, according to many political analysts, spells the end of any future political plans Huckabee might have.

Well, that may be the case. However, should it be?

I deliberately didn’t write anything about this at first because I wanted to be sure I understood all the background with respect to this case. Here are the facts.

Clemmons committed a burglarly in Arkansas at age 16. There was no gun involved; it was a non-violent burglary, in that sense. He was sentenced to 108 years in prison for this act. After serving 11 years of that sentence, he requested a review of his sentence. Huckabee, as governor [the year was 2000], reviewed the request and concluded that the 108-year sentence was excessive. He commuted the sentence, shortening the time to 47 years. That made Clemmons eligible for parole. When his case came before the parole board, it decided that he had served enough time for this crime, and Clemmons was released.

Now, 9 years later, he commits the murders. Along the way, he committed a number of other crimes. He was lately accused of child rape in Washington, yet amazingly, his bail was set at a mere $15,000. Therefore, he was out on bail when he committed the murders.

I want to be fair to Huckabee in this matter. First, some full disclosure. I voted for Huckabee in the Florida primary last year. I considered him the best of the candidates available. While I was concerned about the number of pardons and commutations he allowed as governor of Arkansas, I was in basic agreement with most of his positions. I was particularly disappointed by the criticism leveled at him by some conservatives who tried to paint him as a Karl-Marx-wannabe. In my view, that was a gross distortion of his record. So, now you know where I stand.

Because of that I didn’t want to rush to his defense, knowing that it could be labeled as simply a knee-jerk reaction: one conservative Christian defending another just because . . . It might be deemed “identity politics” by some.

However, let’s review this particular incident. There is a principle in law that says the punishment should fit the crime. A 108-year sentence for a non-weapon burglary is not exactly consistent with that principle. Huckabee felt the same way about it; hence his commutation to a 47-year sentence instead. Frankly, if I were shouldering that responsibility, I would have judged it in the same way. The 47 years was much closer to a just punishment than 108 years.

Keep in mind that the parole board agreed with the commutation, as did the judge in the case. Huckabee was going along with the unanimous verdict of those involved. It was not simply his call alone.

Hindsight is wonderful. There’s no way he could have foreseen what Clemmons would do in the future—certainly not 9 years in the future.

Some have compared Huckabee’s commutation of this sentence with the case of Willie Horton back in 1988, when Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, while governor of Massachusetts, allowed Horton, who was a convicted murderer, out on furlough. He proceeded to beat a man and then rape the man’s fiancee. That became a major issue that Dukakis never could deal with successfully.

Do we really think these two cases are similar?

Clemmons, at the time of his commutation, was a nonviolent burglar. Horton was a convicted murderer. Huckbee’s commutation didn’t allow Clemmons on the street; that was up to the parole board. Horton was allowed out without any supervision under the Massachusetts program. Any fairminded person has to see the differences.

Will this derail presidential ambitions for Huckabee, if indeed he still harbors such ambitions? It might. Would that be fair? Not based on this one incident. But then who ever said life was fair?

Huckabee has explained his role. People will either accept that explanation or not. For me, his decision in 2000 made sense. The real culprits are the ones who let Clemmons out on the street again while under an indictment for child rape. Let’s place the responsibility where it really belongs.