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Originally published October 17, 2010 at 10:01 PM | Page modified October 18, 2010 at 11:16 PM

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Despite Clemmons' record, Huckabee showed mercy

Man who would murder four police officers in Pierce County showed violence and cunning while an inmate in notorious Arkansas prisons.

Seattle Times staff reporters

When Maurice Clemmons was 17 years old, he entered the Arkansas Department of Correction, one of the country's most fearsome prison systems.

That system assigned him to one of its most infamous units, the Tucker prison farm. The farm gave birth to the Tucker telephone, a torture device in which guards attached electrodes from an old-fashioned telephone to a prisoner's big toe and genitals, and commenced to crank.

If Clemmons was up to this, he didn't look the part. For starters, there was his age. If he wasn't in prison, he'd still be in high school. Then there was his size — 5 feet 7, 156 pounds — followed by his rap sheet. Clemmons had received five years for grabbing a seventh-grader's necklace, then punching the kid in the face. In prison, a crime like that doesn't score any intimidation points.

Prison officials charted Clemmons' scars — a half-inch scar above his left eye, another below his right eye — and recorded his family history, listing three half brothers who had done prison time. They performed psychological tests, having Clemmons draw human figures and answer hundreds of true-or-false questions. Some results indicated he was well-adjusted. Others suggested a personality disorder.

They assigned Clemmons a number, 92616, and took his picture, front and side. In the photos, Clemmons' eyes are hard, his jaw, firm.

Clemmons received his bed assignment on Sept. 7, 1989. Six days later came the test.

During a card game, another inmate began stuffing Clemmons' deodorant, comb and mirror into a pillowcase. "I had to confirm to him about giving back my property," Clemmons said later.

The other inmate grabbed a broken razor and slashed Clemmons across the face. Clemmons answered with his fists, the fight so ferocious that guards struggled to separate the two.

Clemmons received a trip to the infirmary and disciplinary charges. But his point had been made. And in case anyone missed it, he reinforced the message one week later, joining four other inmates in beating and kicking another prisoner.

Maurice Clemmons was born in Marianna, Ark., an impoverished and racially divided town near the Mississippi border.

At the time — Feb. 6, 1972 — the smell of smoke hung in the air, the vestige of seven storefronts that had gone up in flames, including the offices of young black leaders who had organized a boycott of white-owned businesses. "Firemen do not rule out arson," the newspaper said.

Three weeks before Clemmons' birth, authorities turned fire hoses on several hundred black students demanding an assembly to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Later that night, the home of a white sheriff's deputy was firebombed. Threats flew back and forth, punctuated by sniper fire and explosives.

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Clemmons' mother worked two jobs, one as a nursing aide. Clemmons' father worked in a factory that made frames for car seats, but the factory closed amid Marianna's racial violence, and he moved away.

To escape Marianna's poverty, Clemmons' mom moved her kids to Little Rock in the mid-1980s.

Maurice started finding trouble at 16. He grabbed that necklace from the seventh-grader in November 1988 — and from there, his crimes escalated. Two months later Clemmons and two friends broke into the house of a Little Rock police officer and stole two pistols and ammunition. Caught the same day with the officer's service revolver, the three confessed.

For snatching the necklace and the break-in, Clemmons picked up three felony charges. But he was released from custody pending trial, and kept going. In April 1989, Clemmons, now 17, broke into a state trooper's home and lifted electronics, jewelry and guns. Making Clemmons for the crime proved easy. He left behind a fingerprint and held on to some of the stolen goods. Now he had five felony charges.

In May, he was caught bringing a .25-caliber pistol to his high school, drawing felony charge No. 6.

Two weeks later, on a late night in June, he approached a woman in a nightclub parking lot and, pretending to be armed, demanded her money. When she called his bluff — "Why don't you just shoot?" — he punched her in the head and grabbed her purse, netting $16 and a credit card. He was arrested soon after, holding the exact amount of money reported stolen.

In all, Clemmons racked up eight felony charges in seven months. When he received that five-year sentence for the necklace and was shipped off to Tucker, his trip through the courts was just beginning.

In prison, just about anything can become the object of commerce, from shampoo to legal advice to drugs.

In Clemmons' first year at Tucker, he was approached by another inmate, named Glover, who wanted some Little Debbie snack cakes. Clemmons agreed to supply one box for two in return. But when Glover returned, two boxes in hand, he learned the terms had changed. Clemmons now demanded six boxes, delivered to his "pickup man," or else there would be a beating.

When Glover could scrounge up only four boxes, Clemmons threatened to raise the price to 12. With nowhere else to turn, Glover reported the threats — and prison officials punished Clemmons with 30 days in isolation.

Clemmons was only a teenager, but in prison he proved no patsy. Instead, he was an enterprising thug, shaking down some inmates while dealing drugs to others.

At Tucker, he got into at least a half-dozen fights. He removed a lock from his locker box, put the lock in a sock, and used this makeshift weapon like a medieval mace, lacing into another inmate. He hid a shank — a piece of glass, 8 inches long, cut into a V — in his envelope for legal mail. He taunted guards and threatened to hire a "hit man" to kill inmates suspected of snitching.

He was disciplined for having "sexual relations" with another inmate — and for being a lookout while other prisoners took a turn with the same man.

In prison, Clemmons displayed cunning and menace. But in court, he crippled himself through stubbornness and stupidity.

Clemmons kept getting escorted to Pulaski County Circuit Court, for resolution of all his other felony charges. For the break-in at the first cop's house, Clemmons was convicted of burglary and theft. His sentence stretched from five years to 13.

He still had five charges pending. Prosecutors offered a deal — 25 years for the bundle, if he pleaded guilty. That would have pushed Clemmons' sentence to 38 years, which sounds like more than it is. In Arkansas, inmates typically serve one-sixth of their time before becoming eligible for parole. Those 38 years could have been more like seven.

Judge Floyd Lofton urged a plea bargain, saying of Clemmons: "He's got a hard row to hoe. ... This is just going to get worse." But Clemmons refused the deal. He insisted he was innocent, no matter the prosecution's evidence.

In the purse case, a jury convicted Clemmons of aggravated robbery and theft, and gave him 25 years for the former, 10 for the latter. Lofton ordered the sentences to run back-to-back. Clemmons now had 48 years.

Still, Clemmons didn't cut his losses. On trial for the break-in at the trooper's house, Clemmons became a terror. He reached for one guard's pistol; threw a lock at another guard; made a weapon from a doorstop and hid it in his sock; and threatened to punch the judge in the mouth. Jurors took 16 minutes to convict Clemmons of burglary and theft, and gave him 30 years for each. Lofton, again, ordered the terms back-to-back.

The numbers, put together, were stunning. Clemmons wound up being sentenced to a total of 108 years — all for a string of crimes in which the worst injury inflicted was a punch to the face. Afterward, he pleaded guilty to the one felony left, his eighth — and received no additional time. But he had learned his lesson too late.

In the summer of 1992, prison officials transferred Clemmons, now 20, to the Cummins prison farm, a unit even more notorious than Tucker.

In 1970 a federal judge called the Arkansas prison system "a dark and evil world," and he was talking mostly of Cummins, a farm that helped inspire the Robert Redford movie "Brubaker."

As an Arkansas inmate, Clemmons worked on hoe squads 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 21, planting and cultivating everything from cotton to cantaloupe while long-line riders, armed guards on horseback, kept watch. Other times he worked as a barracks porter. Or on the fence crew. Or in the vinyl bindery, the garment factory, the furniture plant, the laundry.

His disciplinary file grew thicker, reaching hundreds of pages. During a strip-search, guards found money in a pouch attached to Clemmons' testicles. Told to hand the bills over, Clemmons jammed them in his mouth and swallowed.

Clemmons preyed on weaker inmates, looting their locker boxes. He plotted to break in to the penitentiary store. He enrolled in a GED program — one small move in the right direction — but got kicked out by the principal, for reasons unexplained in the prison file.

In the chow hall, one inmate stabbed Clemmons in the side. In a fight over what to watch on TV, another inmate doused Clemmons with scalding water. Clemmons bloodied mouths, broke an inmate's arm, and dueled with weapons, wielding a pipe to another prisoner's ice pick. "I've seen a lot of people die because they took things lightly," he wrote to prison officials. "I will not."

"I did my time like a champ, brother," he said years later.

Under the formula in which inmates served a sixth of their sentence, Clemmons' 108-year sentence would have become 18. But Clemmons' status as a habitual offender pushed back his parole eligibility. So did the fact he was bleeding good-time credits by getting into so much trouble in prison.

By the spring of 1995, he had forfeited six times more good-day credits than he'd earned. How old he would be when he became eligible for parole was anyone's guess. Prosecutors figured 49. The Department of Correction came up with 55.

Prison officials kept track of inmates' enemies, in order to keep them separate. As Clemmons' enemy list grew longer, he was shuttled among barracks and units. Officials worried that his predatory ways would make him the target of an organized assault, and their fears seemed justified when a group of inmates chased Clemmons across the yard, carrying broken broom handles.

Clemmons contested the disciplinary charges against him, either on the facts or procedural grounds. "An inmate must be served written notice of charges within 72 hours!" His letters became a storm of exclamation points: "I'm not taking no more! ... The whole thing was a conspiracy against me! ... I'm tired of being held down!"

He accused guards of telling lies or nursing vendettas, and while he almost always claimed to be innocent — even when he wasn't — the Arkansas prison system didn't inspire confidence. Six Cummins guards were indicted in 1998 on charges of beating inmates and falsifying reports; the ringleader admitted the guards used a "shock stick," resembling a cattle prod, to deliver high-voltage current to inmates' genitals.

Clemmons also accused the prison system of treating black inmates worse than white ones. "If I were white would this here took place Hell No!" He referred to Arkansas as "this Great White State," and, in a letter to one warden, delivered this plea:

"Must I get on my Hands and Knees and Beg or say yes sir Boss every time I see you! ... The only person I expect not to have feelings for me is the white man! They have proven to me that they are some cold hearted people when they gave me all this time! Sir! Help! Me! Please!"

Clemmons hoped to cut into those 108 years by finding relief in the courts. Public defenders handled his early appeals; later petitions were handled mostly by a fellow inmate, who was paid by Clemmons.

The appeals courts rejected one claim after another. Clemmons argued that in grabbing the woman's purse, he should have been convicted of robbery, not aggravated robbery, since he didn't really have a gun. The Arkansas Supreme Court said pretending was enough.

Clemmons' second round of appeals went before Marion Humphrey, a Pulaski County circuit judge with a distinguished résumé. Bachelor's degree from Princeton. Divinity degree from Harvard. Law degree from the University of Arkansas. Humphrey was both a judge and a minister — and would play a role in Clemmons' life for years to come.

In the fall of 1997, Clemmons wrote to Humphrey and offered his "sincerest prayer" for Humphrey's health and spirit. "As for myself, I am thankful to our Lord for another day of living and for the will and desire to seek forgiveness and understanding from both our Lord and the people of this great state."

The anger rooted in Clemmons' prison correspondence was gone. "This Great White State" had become "this great state." Clemmons told Humphrey that he'd outgrown his youthful mistakes, developed new values, and learned to respect others. "I declare under the watchful eyes of our Lord that I will do all in my power as a man to live a drug-free, crime-free life to the end of my existence."

The month before he wrote this letter, Clemmons assaulted another inmate. Two months after the letter, he was disciplined for yet another assault and ordered into isolation.

Humphrey vacated two of Clemmons' convictions, ruling that Clemmons' trial lawyer should have asked the trial judge to recuse himself, since Clemmons had threatened him. But in 1998 the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed Humphrey, reinstating the convictions and Clemmons' 108-year sentence.

Clemmons had one option left: Appeal to the governor for mercy.

In January 2000, Clemmons' application for executive clemency made its way to Little Rock, landing on the desk of Gov. Mike Huckabee.

His plea would have occasioned little notice. Clemmons' crimes were not notorious, and Huckabee received about 1,200 applications a year, some from death row. In this case, as in all cases, Huckabee had 120 days to decide: grant or deny?

For inmates, clemency is typically a long shot. With roots that run from the British Crown to the Roman Empire to ancient Babylon, clemency falls outside the constraints of the judicial system. It is an act of mercy that an executive — emperor, king, president, governor — can grant for "a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all," as one law professor says.

In the United States, by 20th Century's end, many legal experts fretted about clemency's decline. Pardons and commutations represent the legal system's safety valve — a way to account for changing times, values, circumstances — but many governors wanted little to do with them.

These governors saw all risk, no reward. They pictured Willie Horton, the Massachusetts inmate who received a weekend furlough, raped a woman, and whose story crippled presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988. A furlough isn't clemency, but it is mercy, and mercy in all its forms suffered a devastating setback. Governors in Massachusetts went more than 10 years without granting a single commutation.

But Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister from the small town of Hope, wasn't like most governors.

"He saw that everyone makes mistakes, everyone can be rehabilitated," says Cory Cox, Huckabee's clemency adviser for two years. "He believed racism is real, especially for people sentenced in the 1960s and 1970s who got disproportionate sentences based on the color of their skin."

Huckabee, a Republican, displayed a willingness to brave voter backlash. "If one acts by pure raw political instinct and a pure Machiavellian approach to public office, you'll never, ever, ever, ever, ever grant clemency," he once told a Little Rock audience. But Huckabee said he didn't take his cues from Machiavelli.

In 1999, the year before he received Clemmons' plea for mercy, Huckabee became the first Arkansas governor in nearly 30 years to stop an execution, sparing the life of a man who had murdered an 81-year-old farmer and stolen his truck. "I had rather face the anger of the people than the wrath of God," Huckabee said.

Huckabee called himself a "grace" Christian, not a "law" Christian, and what was clemency but an act of grace?

In his 10 ½ years as governor, starting in 1996, Mike Huckabee emerged as a political force, an ordained minister who could draw votes from across the political spectrum.

He spoke in support of "restorative justice," and backed up his words. In 17 years his three predecessors approved 507 clemency requests. Huckabee granted twice that many: 1,033.

He inspired legal scholars who bemoaned clemency's retreat. But in Arkansas, opposition mounted. That was predictable, to an extent. But unfortunately for Huckabee — and for the cause he championed, clemency robust and true — much of the criticism had ample support.

Clemency can be granted in two ways. A commutation reduces a sentence while preserving the conviction; a pardon strikes the conviction altogether.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette analyzed Huckabee's first 111 commutations and found that inmates stood a better chance if they fit one of four categories. The first upheld clemency's historic role: "The justice system has treated them more harshly than most." It was the other three that raised concerns: "They know a person who has known the governor. They worked at the Governor's Mansion. A minister interceded for them."

Huckabee gave critics plenty to work with. He granted clemency to Eugene Fields, a wealthy developer and major GOP donor who had four DUI convictions; to Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, for a reckless-driving conviction; and to two murderers who worked as trusties in Huckabee's home.

He eschewed transparency, refusing to say why he did what he did. The gubernatorial appointees who made clemency recommendations often did a lousy job of screening cases. And his office repeatedly failed to notify victims and prosecutors of pending requests, as required by law.

Confronted on any of this, Huckabee became churlish. One prosecutor who complained to the governor received this reply from Huckabee's chief aide: "The governor read your letter and laughed out loud. He wanted me to respond to you. I wish you success as you cut down on your caffeine consumption."

In 2004 this prosecutor took his concerns to court — and prevailed, voiding Huckabee's grant of clemency to a murderer who took another man's prosthetic leg and beat him to death with it. Afterward, Huckabee pledged to change his ways. "As I review the whole hullabaloo over this thing the past few months, the truth is I could have handled it better," he told reporters.

Huckabee said he would start explaining himself. He also released criteria he would consider while screening clemency requests, including "remarkable signs of rehabilitation" and the chances that an inmate would commit another crime.

When Huckabee received Clemmons' application in early 2000, those changes were not yet in place.

The parole board had supported Clemmons' plea, 5-0. One of those votes belonged to August Pieroni, a retired sheriff who died last year. Pieroni had interviewed Clemmons in prison. "Pieroni was tough," former board member Deborah Suttlar says. "Whatever he saw in the interview, it convinced him."

The board's paperwork to the governor provided little explanation for its vote. A work sheet offered these handwritten words: "cousin — brother — present — said he was 16 years at the time — been in 11 years — would have a job — judge recommends." The file was also thin in other respects, with no record of notification to the prosecutor or Clemmons' victims.

Floyd Lofton presided as judge at Clemmons' trials, but Lofton's input wasn't sought because he had retired. "In this case I would have objected strenuously," Lofton says. He would have cited Clemmons' status as a habitual offender, among other factors.

The request for input instead went to Lofton's successor, Marion Humphrey.

Humphrey backed Clemmons' plea, lending the support of both a judge and minister. What's more, the parole board's chairman was an elder in Humphrey's church. Humphrey says he "very well could have" talked to the chairman about the case.

Clemmons wrote a letter to Huckabee, saying he was seeking compassion and mercy: "God Bless You ... It is so prayed!" Asked the grounds for his request, Clemmons checked a box for "excessive sentence." He also checked this box: "My institutional adjustment has been exemplary."

But Clemmons' adjustment had been just the opposite. The same year he filled out this clemency application, the Arkansas Department of Correction reduced Clemmons' time in prison to this damning score sheet:

"Disciplinaries: 29 Times.

Achievements: None."

In May 2000, Huckabee granted Clemmons' plea for clemency, citing Clemmons' youth when sentenced. The governor commuted the sentences for four of Clemmons' eight felony convictions, making him immediately eligible for parole.

But the parole board still had to follow through.

In July, the prison system completed a parole risk-assessment form for Clemmons. His score registered in the scale's highest category of risk, placing him among those most likely to return to violence.

That same month, the parole board voted to give Clemmons his early release. Within weeks, he was free.

Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730

or karmstrong@seattletimes.com; Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605

or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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