I’m not entirely sure Mike Huckabee can be blamed for the apparently-continued criminal activities of Maurice Clemons, who allegedly shot four police officers in Washington State to death over the weekend. To be sure, then-Governor Huckabee granted clemency to Clemons, who at the time was serving a 95-year sentence in an Arkansas prison. But we can’t reconstruct Clemons’ file now, whether he and his lawyers were able to put together enough evidence and argument such that Governor Huckabee might reasonably have thought that Clemons did not represent a continuing threat to society or even that he might have been rehabilitated from his former crimes.
Chief executives are given the power to pardon, commute, or otherwise excuse judicial punishments for a multitude of very good reasons, including a situation in which the black-letter law imposes an unjustly long or harsh punishment or when a prisoner demonstrates that clemency is called for. I’m not saying that was necessarily the case for Clemons, but it might have been. In Clemons’ case, it wasn’t just Huckabee who thought he should be let go, either — a parole board independently reached the same conclusion, as Huckabee points out on his own PAC’s website, although his press release does not admit of Huckabee being involved at all.
Obviously, Clemons’ crime in Washington is dreadful and terrifying. Our hearts should go out to the families of the slain officers. Assuming Clemons is guilty (and there is every reason to think he is), he deserves and will surely receive the harshest punishment that Washington State can mete out under its laws — I don’t know offhand whether Washington has capital punishment or not.
It’s easy to criticize the decision based on the results. And fairly or not, right-wingers are using this opportunity to demonstrate that they can criticize one of their own, putting a damper on the presumed Presidential ambitions of Huckabee in 2012. But the political question ought to be whether Huckabee exercised bad judgment in letting Clemons go based on the information available to him at the time, and that’s not such an easy decision to have made prospectively. And Clemons was out on bail from Washington State, where he also had a record and charges were pending against him there. After all, no one is pointing any fingers at the Washington judge who authorized bail in his case; bail can be denied entirely if there are good reasons to think the defendant will commit other crimes if freed.
UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that what Huckabee did was to commute Clemons’ sentence, not to pardon him. The commutation rendered Clemons eligible for parole – and then the parole board, acting separately from Huckabee, went ahead and paroled him. That’s not a pardon, although at this point that’s a purely academic distinction.