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Thanks, Arkansas, for giving us Maurice Clemmons

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Nov. 30, 2009 at 7:44 pm |
December 2, 2009 5:29 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

In 2007, gross misjudgments in a distant state allowed a one-man crime wave – Daniel Tavares Jr. – to move to Washington and murder a young Graham couple. A series of blunders in Massachusetts had set him free to pursue his criminal career in Pierce County.

Now it looks as if history may have repeated itself with Maurice Clemmons, the 37-year-old fugitive charged with gunning down four Lakewood police officers on Sunday.

Like Tavares in Massachusetts, Clemmons – still at large as of this writing – was returned to the streets in Arkansas despite ample evidence that he remained a grave threat to society. In both cases, the law-and-order people made rookie errors.

In Massachusetts, prosecutors failed to provide a judge with crucial information about Tavares’ criminal background, and the judge released him without bail – not knowing he’d killed his mother, had a record of violence as long as the prison yard, and was even then facing felony charges for assaulting guards.

Clemmons’ history with the justice system is still unfolding. But one thing is clear already: Had the folks in Arkansas been paying attention, he’d still be doing hard time down there, not fleeing police up here in the aftermath of a horrifying crime.

Basic facts: In Arkansas in 1990, Clemmons was sentenced to 60 years in prison for breaking into the home of a state trooper and stealing a gun, among other items. When convicted, he was already in prison for other felonies. On paper, he reportedly faced a potential term of 95 years – though in Arkansas, such sentences were apparently fiction for public consumption.

In 2000, he was paroled and received clemency from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a contender for the Republican presidential nomination last year.

Huckabee on Sunday released a statement noting that he acted on the recommendation of the Arkansas parole board when he granted clemency. True – but Huckabee has been praised for his mercy to convicts as governor. You can’t take credit without also accepting responsibility. In this case, the buck stopped on his desk.

Still, Clemmons was soon thrown back in prison after getting the benefit of the doubt from Huckabee. He was charged with committing two aggravated robberies during his brief freedom. His final release came in 2004, and only because prosecutors – of all people – reportedly had delayed too long in issuing warrants for his arrest. Except for this blunder, Clemmons might have remained in prison at least another 15 years.

Thanks, Arkansas. Go sit in the corner with Massachusetts.

Then there’s the question of how Clemmons came to be released on bail in Pierce County just last week despite multiple felony charges, a long and spectacular criminal career in Arkansas, and months of erratic and violent behavior. The answers will prove interesting – but no one should jump to conclusions until the facts and legalities are better understood.

Maurice Clemmons is a poster boy for three-strikes laws. In retrospect, he had no business living any place not surrounded by high walls and guard towers. Crystal balls are hard to come by, but we wish somebody had fully recognized his danger 15 years ago and 1,800 miles away.

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