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Originally published December 2, 2009 at 10:22 PM | Page modified December 3, 2009 at 12:46 AM

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Clemmons couldn't be held after 'safety net' dissolved

When a Pierce County prosecutor appeared in court on July 2 and requested that Maurice Clemmons be held on $300,000 bail, the prosecutor knew he had a safety net that could keep Clemmons in custody no matter what — a fugitive warrant out of Arkansas.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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When a Pierce County prosecutor appeared in court on July 2 and requested that Maurice Clemmons be held on $300,000 bail, the prosecutor knew he had a safety net that could keep Clemmons in custody no matter what — a fugitive warrant out of Arkansas.

But over the next three weeks that warrant wound up being rescinded through an unusual sequence of events captured in hearing transcripts, correspondence and e-mails.

In Pierce County, the courts ultimately set bail for Clemmons at $190,000 — a figure closer to that sought by prosecutors than by Clemmons' defense attorney.

Arkansas, meanwhile, took steps that stripped Washington's safety net — leaving authorities here both angry and confused.

A central figure in that effort is a former traffic judge once accused of threatening to kill a process server and filing a false insurance claim.

Clemmons, 37, wound up posting bond on Nov. 23, securing his release from jail. Six days later he allegedly killed four Lakewood police officers.

The controversy surrounding Clemmons has become so intense that Gov. Chris Gregoire issued an order Wednesday barring Washington from accepting any new parolees from Arkansas pending further investigation. "If Arkansas doesn't like it," she said, "sue me."

First ruling: No bail

Clemmons appeared before Pierce County Superior Court Judge John McCarthy on July 2 to be arraigned on eight felony charges, including allegations that he had punched a sheriff's deputy and raped a 12-year-old girl.

John Cummings, a deputy prosecutor, represented the state. A Federal Way lawyer, Daniel Murphy Jr., appeared for Clemmons.

Clemmons pleaded not guilty. Then the subject moved to Clemmons' potential release before trial.

"I would request bail, as it is presumed," Murphy told the judge.

In Washington, bail is indeed presumed: The state's constitution says "all persons charged with crime shall be bailable," with the exception of capital cases. None of Clemmons' charges qualified as a capital offense.

Cummings asked for $300,000 bail — $200,000 for the child-rape charge, and $100,000 for the seven other counts. The prosecutor cited Clemmons' lengthy criminal record in Arkansas and said Clemmons might be looking at a third strike, increasing the risk he would flee.

Murphy proposed the total bail be $40,000. He argued Clemmons wasn't a flight risk, saying he had shown up in court just the day before.

Murphy also challenged the prosecution's evidence: "On the rape charges, there may be a recantation anyway."

McCarthy wondered why Clemmons had failed to appear in court two months earlier.

Murphy said Clemmons "did not have notice" of that hearing. "He also has a medical condition that was occurring right at that time," Murphy said, adding that Clemmons had "been on good behavior for five years."

McCarthy set bail for the Washington charges at $190,000 — $150,000 for the rape charge, and $40,000 for the others.

In an interview Wednesday, McCarthy called the $190,000 a "high bail." Some people charged with similar crimes even get released on their own recognizance, he said.

The bail amount, Cummings hoped, wouldn't come into play anyway. That's because Clemmons' recent run-ins in Washington allegedly violated his parole in Arkansas. He was charged with being a fugitive from justice, and could be held without bail.

At the prosecutor's request, McCarthy ordered just that: Even if Clemmons could come up with the $190,000 bail for the Washington charges, there was no bail on the fugitive warrant.

But Murphy said he hoped to clear up the fugitive matter.

"I've contacted his former attorney down in Arkansas who is working on this," Murphy told the judge.

No more safety net

Six days later, on July 8, North Little Rock attorney Stephen E. Morley wrote Linda Strong, an Arkansas parole administrator.

Morley had talked with Murphy and been briefed on Clemmons' situation.

Morley's letter to Strong said: "It is my belief there is some confusion concerning Mr. Clemmons' status."

Arkansas had apparently accused Clemmons of being an "absconder," Morley said, and issued the warrant allowing him to be held without bail.

But the absconder label didn't apply to Clemmons, wrote Morley, who asked Strong to rescind the state's warrant so Clemmons could post bond in Tacoma.

Morley acknowledged that Clemmons faced new charges in Washington. But, Morley wrote, it was his understanding those charges "may be dismissed in the near future."

Morley's letter also related a conversation Murphy had with a Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) employee on May 6. The DOC employee, Morley wrote, said that as long as Clemmons stayed out of trouble, the DOC would leave him "unsupervised."

Morley's letter could have left the impression Clemmons was on good terms with the Washington DOC. But that wasn't the case.

In the two months between that May 6 conversation and Morley's July 8 letter, Clemmons had been charged with rape and assault, and failed to appear in court. DOC officials were desperate to keep him in custody.

A week after Morley's letter, Arkansas withdrew its warrant. Clemmons could then walk out of jail if he posted the $190,000 bail.

Morley is a former traffic-court judge who resigned in 1997 while facing a judicial-ethics complaint. Among the charges: He threatened to kill a process server, assaulted two wives, used and sold cocaine and marijuana, filed a false insurance claim, and lied to police investigating a hit-and-run accident.

Morley denied the allegations but resigned before the commission could rule. The state's lawyer disciplinary panel suspended his law license for 60 days and fined him $1,000 for making false statements in the hit-and-run accident.

Morley did not return phone calls Wednesday seeking comment. Murphy could not be reached, either.

With the no-bail hold lifted, Murphy moved to reduce Clemmons' bail in the child-rape case. He appeared July 24 before Pierce County Superior Court Judge Thomas Felnagle.

Murphy wanted Clemmons' $150,000 bond dropped to "the neighborhood of $50,000." Clemmons wasn't a threat to the community, Murphy said. He was his family's sole income earner. He had also been seeing a counselor.

But deputy prosecutor Angelica McGaha said Clemmons was a flight risk and wouldn't stay away from the child he was accused of molesting.

"I believe that he is a threat to the community," she said.

Felnagle refused to reduce the bond, citing Clemmons' "significant criminal history" and how he'd been "acting crazy."

"The warning signs are all over the place," Felnagle said.

Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com; Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2605 or mohagan@seattletimes.com.

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