The nation was stunned by the senseless and savage cold-blooded murders of 4 young police officers in Lakewood, Washington. Whenever a police officer or soldier is killed, I feel the loss is even more profound for they are the ones who stand between our freedom and anarchy.
At the time I write these words, police are still searching for Maurice Clemmons who is believed to be the one committing these unspeakable acts. Nine years ago, that name crossed my desk. I commuted his sentence from 108 years to 47 years. Many news reports, talk show hosts, and bloggers have erroneously said that he was granted a “pardon.” Others speak of me “setting him free.” As one who now hosts a talk show and who does daily radio commentaries, I can attest to how easy commentary is compared to actually governing. I am not seeking to justify or defend my actions of nine years ago, but it’s important that I answer for my actions and give some explanation as to how and why his sentence was commuted.
I take full responsibility for my actions of nine years ago. I acted on the facts presented to me in 2000. If I could have possibly known what Clemmons would do nine years later, I obviously would have made a different decision. But if the same file was presented to me today, I would have likely made the same decision.
Each state is different, but in Arkansas, a governor doesn’t initiate a parole—the Post Prison Transfer Board does after it conducts a thorough review of an inmate’s file and request. The board then makes a recommendation to the governor, who decides to grant or deny.
If the decision is made to grant any form of clemency (the broad term for a commutation or a full pardon), the governor gives notice of intent and the file is sent to the prosecutor, judge, law enforcement officials, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of State as well as to the news media. A period of 30 days is then started for there to be public input as well as response from the above named officials. At the end of the public response period, the final decision is rendered.
Between 1,000 and 1,200 requests for some form of clemency came to my desk each and every one of the 10 ½ years I was governor. Ninety-two percent of the time, I denied the requests. When I did grant them, it was usually based on the recommendation of at least five of the members of the PPTB, with consideration given to the input from public officials.
Maurice Clemmons was 16 years old when he was charged with burglary and robbery. He was sentenced to a total of 108 years based on the way in which the sentences were stacked. For the crimes he committed and the age at which he committed the crimes, it was dramatically outside the norm for sentencing. The PPTB recommended in 2000 by a 5-0 vote for his sentence to be commuted.
He had served 11 years of his sentence. A pardon would have set him free and cleared his record. A commutation to “time served” would have set him free and released him from any parole reporting. As per the recommendation, I commuted his sentence to the term of 47 years, still a long sentence for the type of crime he had committed, but it would make him parole eligible. It would not parole him, as governors do not have that power in Arkansas. He would have to separately apply for parole and meet the criteria for that.
Despite news reports to the contrary, the only record of public response to the notice to commute was from the trial judge, who recommended the commendation in concert with the board. There were letters of support, but no record of letters of opposition.
Following the commutation, he met the criteria for parole and was paroled to supervision in late 2000. When he violated terms of his parole by participating in additional crimes, he was returned to prison and should have stayed there. For reasons only the prosecutor can explain, charges were not brought forth in a timely way and the prosecutor ended up dropping the charges, allowing him to leave prison and return to supervised parole.
He moved to Washington state and had intermittent criminal activity that increased in violence and frequency. He was allowed to post bail in Washington state and while on bail from there committed the unspeakable acts of murdering four valiant police officers. I can’t explain why he wasn’t prosecuted properly for the parole violations or why he was allowed to make bail in Washington state and not incarcerated earlier for crimes committed there.
I wish his file had never crossed my desk, but it did. The decision I made is one that I now wish were different, but I could only look backwards at his case, not forward. None of this is of any comfort to the families of these police officers nor should it be. Their loss is senseless. No words or deeds by anyone will bring them back to their loved ones. Our system is not perfect and neither are those responsible for administering it.
The system and those of us who are supposed to make sure it works sometimes fail. In this case, we clearly did.
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