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Don’t blame McCarthy and Felnagle for lack of clairvoyance on Clemmons

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Dec. 3, 2009 at 7:58 pm with 1 Comment »
December 3, 2009 6:33 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

It’s hard to sustain outrage against a dead man. Maurice Clemmons is beyond the reach of public anger, so the anger has to go looking for someone else.

Targets of convenience: the two Pierce County Superior Court judges, John McCarthy and Thomas Felnagle, who allowed Clemmons to post bond and walk out of jail before killing four Lakewood police officers Sunday.

Anger doesn’t have a brain, though. McCarthy and Felnagle are the wrong targets. If we’re looking to pin blame, the best candidate at this point looks like the Arkansas Department of Corrections.
It is indeed true that McCarthy on July 2 set a bail of $190,000 for several felony charges against Clemmons, including second-degree child rape, third-degree assault and malicious mischief. By all accounts, though, $190,000 was a high bail, given the circumstances. Even so – and this is a crucial point – McCarthy still ordered Clemmons held without bail because Arkansas had issued a warrant to extradite him.

Leave aside the warrant for a moment. On the Washington counts, denying bail wasn’t an option. The state constitution decrees that defendants have the right to post bail for all but capital charges. Keep in mind, Clemmons was not a cop-killer on July 2. He was just one of an unending stream of defendants – many charged with serious crimes, including child rape – flowing relentlessly through the court system. Neither McCarthy nor anyone else had a crystal ball to warn them that this particular defendant would explode five months later and gun down four officers.

Even without the constitutional problems, the river of bad guys and suspects can’t simply be impounded in the slammer; there’s no jail big enough, and the taxpayers would never spring for it.
Felnagle’s role was likewise blameless. He couldn’t hold Clemmons without bail, because Arkansas had just rescinded its warrant. Felnagle heard Clemmons’ July 24 appeal for a lower bail – and he denied it. Clemmons somehow found a bail bondsman willing to pledge the money.

McCarthy and Felnagle are good judges who had to do their job without the benefit of clairvoyance. They don’t deserve the grief they’ve been getting over this.

The same can’t be said of the Arkansas corrections officials who rescinded their extradition warrant, which could have kept Clemmons in custody for violating the parole he’d been granted years earlier in that state. After Washington’s Department of Corrections pressed Arkansas to take back its parolee, that state issued a second warrant – a toothless one that wouldn’t touch Clemmons until our criminal justice system was finished with him.

You’d almost think Arkansas officials were trying to force their bad boy on Washington, despite the fact that both states have signed an interstate compact requiring them to accept responsibilities for their own parolees.

The question of Clemmons’ bail would never have come up had Arkansas simply kept the May warrant in force. The question of where to bury four fine officers would never have come up, either.

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