The Common Good

Huckabee Got it Right

Mike Huckabee is done as a presidential contender. That's the word on the street. When you commute a burglary sentence in 2000 and the guy shoots four police officers to death nine years later, you're political toast.

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But ex-Governor Huckabee refuses to back down. Fact is, he says, Maurice Clemmons didn't go to prison for rape and murder back in 1989; he was in for burglary. For that he was given a virtual life sentence. That didn't make a lot of sense to the Huckabee. Would a stupid white kid from a good family get a sentence like that for a crime like that?

So the governor commuted the sentence. This gave Clemmons an opportunity to make his case to the Arkansas parole board. The board looked at Huckabee's reasoning and thought it made a lot of sense.

Objectively, it was the wrong decision. Maurice Clemmons turned out to be a heartless psychopath -- the kind of guy that guns down police officers for sport.

Did Mike Huckabee know that back in 2000? Was there any way of knowing?

Here's how the presidential hopeful put the case when he appeared on The View:

The easy thing to do, and frankly the politically expedient thing to do, is to say no to every last one of them. That's the easy thing. And you'll always cover your rear end if you do that. Because nobody will ever say, 'Oh you should have let these people out.'

But the reason we have executive clemency in our system of justice is because there are sentences that are disproportionate, there are times when the justice system failed. And our Founding Fathers were smart enough to create checks and balances, so that no one branch of government was able to act independently of the other two.

Conservative pundits and politicians aren't buying this argument. Americans, the reasoning goes, feel comfortable with politicians who never pardon anyone or commute any sentence for any reason.

The sad case of Michael Dukakis keeps coming up. Dukakis granted a furlough to Willie Horton and the man found a strange way to show his appreciation. But the knockout punch came during the 1988 presidential debates when the Massachusetts governor was asked what he would do if his wife was raped and murdered. Dukakis said he was opposed to the death penalty under any circumstances. That answer, viewed in the context of the Horton furlough, killed the Dukakis candidacy.

At least that's the prevailing wisdom. But what if political ineptitude cost Dukakis the 1988 election?

For instance, what if the governor had prefaced his answer with this: "If my wife was raped and murdered, I would want to tear the killer's heart out with my bare hands. That's the natural human response and I suspect you would feel the same way. But our system of justice wouldn't allow me to decide the fate of the man who killed my wife. Our legal system is driven by justice, not personal vengeance."

Vengeance can be good politics, no doubt about that. But so can justice. Mike Huckabee thought a life sentence for a single burglary was a vengeful sentence and thus inconsistent with the foundational principles of American judicial system. Eleven years of prison time for a single criminal act in which no one was injured was a just and sensible sentence.

Those calling for Huckabee's head on a platter argue that no sentence should ever be commuted because every prisoner might turn out to be a bloodthirsty psychopath. Follow that logic to its natural conclusion and every sentence would be a life sentence. Suppose you get pulled over by a traffic cop when you've had one too many. How do we know you won't drive drunk again? And next time you might take an innocent life. So, just to be on the safe side, you spend the rest of your natural life in prison.

That would be a safe penalty, but it would turn America into a bizarre police state where half of us are locked up and the other half are in the corrections field.

Liberals don't like Huckabee because he is a person of faith who would erase the line between church and state; conservatives think the ex-governor takes the Jesus-thing a bit too far. Me, I like the Baptist preacher from Arkansas because he's a Christian disciple and tries to live accordingly.

That isn't a political endorsement; I disagree with the Huckster on a myriad of issues. But he did the right thing back in 2000. When the folks in Washington state put Maurice Clemmons back on the street the man had already revealed his violent nature. That's what you call a bad decision.

It will be interesting to see how the Clemmons affair impacts the nation's political future. But I doubt the people grieving the senseless deaths of four good officers in Tacoma, Washington are giving the matter a lot of thought.

Alan Bean is the executive director of Friends of Justice. Click here to read his blog.

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