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Originally published December 2, 2009 at 12:05 AM | Page modified December 8, 2009 at 12:26 PM

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Danny Westneat

Fixing blame won't fix this mess

Maybe it's therapeutic to blame Arkansas, or Mike Huckabee, that four police officers here are dead. Maybe it helps a little to say it's somebody else's fault. But it's wrong. And it isn't doing us any good.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Maybe it's therapeutic to blame Arkansas, or Mike Huckabee, that four police officers here are dead. Maybe it helps a little to say it's somebody else's fault. But it's wrong. And it isn't doing us any good.

"We'll now look at why he was here and what breakdowns there were back in Arkansas," Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer said Tuesday a few hours after the manhunt for Maurice Clemmons had ended.

"What we're concerned about is him [Huckabee] taking us to task and possibly blaming us for something that he knows we had nothing to do with."

The head of the Lakewood police guild, Brian Wurts, echoed that there was anger in the ranks — at Arkansas. He told of one Lakewood cop, a friend of one of the murdered officers, who planned to call out Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas who commuted Clemmons' prison sentence in 2000.

"He's mad. He's venting," Wurts told a radio program called 'The Rusty Humphries Show.' "He's typing Mike Huckabee a letter right now — to say that because of him, his friend is dead."

If only it were so clear.

Arkansas did do a lousy job keeping Clemmons in check — especially when he showed, in 2001, that he hadn't been rehabilitated.

But all this blaming of Arkansas is a form of denial. It lets our own justice system off the hook. Though it's every bit as culpable, if not more so, in how it let a man go free whom it knew to be both a career criminal and dangerous.

In retrospect, there's no doubt Huckabee's 2000 decision was a mistake. At the time, though, Huckabee had a strong point that Clemmons' more than 100-year sentence was off-the-charts excessive. People get way less than that for murder. Clemmons was guilty of a string of thefts, burglaries and two robberies. In the worst robbery he punched a woman, then took her purse.

Arkansas' clemency board voted 5-0 to lower Clemmons' sentence. Making him eligible for parole.

Says Huckabee: "If I could have possibly known what Clemmons would do nine years later, I obviously would have made a different decision. But if the same file was presented to me today, I would have likely made the same decision."

Can we say the same thing here in Washington state about our decisions? I don't think so. We should stop trying.


By the time we got Clemmons, in 2004, he had reoffended at least three times since being paroled in 2000. One of these, an alleged robbery at gunpoint in Little Rock, Ark., in July 2004, occurred after he had moved to our state and been put under Washington Department of Corrections supervision (apparently he'd gone back for a visit.)

This year he was charged with eight felonies in Pierce County. Punching a police officer. Molesting a 12-year-old girl. He also ran from a police canine unit (he was not charged for that).

When he finally got jailed, he was examined by two psychologists. Their conclusion, six weeks ago, was prophetic: "It is our professional opinion that he presents with increased risk for future dangerous behavior and for committing future criminal acts jeopardizing public safety and security. ... "

Pierce County said it was going to prosecute him for a third and final strike under the "three strikes" law. Which, if it worked, would put Clemmons away for life.

That's fine. But then he was let out on bail.

Why do we grant bail at all to people up for a third strike? If you know you're staring at life, no possibility ever of parole, aren't you highly likely to run? Or do something else crazy?

I thought the point of "three strikes, you're out" was you'd be out of chances. Not out on the street awaiting trial.

They let Clemmons go wearing a monitoring bracelet. Only it was provided by his bail bondsman (the now infamous Jail Sucks Bail Bonds.) Think about that. We left it up to an outfit called Jail Sucks to keep tabs on this guy.

Now our state and Arkansas are going to war over whether a warrant filed by Arkansas in October might have kept Clemmons in jail.

So who is at fault for allowing Clemmons to run wild? The correct answer, which we're not hearing from either state, is: We are.

All this matters because once we lay the officers to rest, we've got some fixing to do. In our bail rules. In how lightly we treat potential three-strikers. In the way we relate to other U.S. states as if they're hostile foreign countries.

I don't see how we get started on any of this if we keep acting like somebody else is to blame.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday.

Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to His column runs Wednesday and Sunday. | 206-464-2086



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