As governor of Arkansas nine years ago, Mike Huckabee commuted the prison sentence of Maurice Clemmons, a man who had served 11 years of a 108-year prison sentence after a conviction of aggravated robbery at the age of 17 (more on Clemmons' history here), making him eligible for parole, which he got.
Now, that decision carries a backlash, as Clemmons became the lead suspect in the killing of four police officers in a Seattle suburb, evaded a police dragnet, and was finally gunned down and killed by an officer today.
Critics have suggested that Huckabee is, to a degree, responsible for the slayings. A CNN reporter in Seattle, delivering the news today of Clemmons' death, said officers were "bewildered" that Clemmons was on the street, in response to an anchor's about Huckabee's commutation.
A statement by Huck PAC's press team on Sunday asserted that "Should [Clemmons] be found to be responsible for this horrible tragedy, it will be the result of a series of failures in the criminal justice system in both Arkansas and Washington State."
A statement by Huckabee himself last night went more in depth.
The former governor says he followed the advice of the parole board, which voted 5-0 in favor of Clemmons' commutation, and the concurrent recommendation of the trial judge. "Despite news reports to the contrary, the only record of public response to the notice to commute was from the trial judge, who recommended the commendation in concert with the board. There were letters of support, but no record of letters of opposition," Huckabee said.
Meanwhile, Arkansas prosecuting attorney Larry Jegley told the Seattle Times that "This is the day I've been dreading for a long time" when told that Clemmons was a suspect in the killings.
Huckabee runs through the history of Clemmons' subsequent interactions with the prison and parole system, then goes on to say:
I wish his file had never crossed my desk, but it did. The decision I made is one that I now wish were different, but I could only look backwards at his case, not forward. None of this is of any comfort to the families of these police officers nor should it be. Their loss is senseless. No words or deeds by anyone will bring them back to their loved ones. Our system is not perfect and neither are those responsible for administering it.
The system and those of us who are supposed to make sure it works sometimes fail. In this case, we clearly did.
The political ramifications of this backlash are unclear. After all the explaining about how Clemmons came to receive a commutation, and how the rest of Clemmons' criminal history had nothing to do with him, the crux of Huckabee's response contains some ministerial gravity, which is usually an appropriate way to handle this type of thing.
The "soft on crime" narrative is one that can stick to political candidates, but the murder of four police officers generally isn't something Huckabee's opponents would seek to score points on, overtly at least. If this controversy were to come up, say, in a GOP primary debate, it would have to be done artfully by anyone seeking to use it against Huckabee.
It is, however, the stuff of robocalls, push polls, of, possibly, soft-money ads. We're far enough away from 2012 that none of that is likely. But, regardless, this hasn't been a good story for Huckabee. The thoughtful, introspective chunk of his response blockquoted above is what will play on cable news, but his moral reaction works for politics, too: it's something Huckabee would rather never have to respond to.