The tragic news of the murder of four police officers in Washington state Sunday morning is worse because the deaths were preventable. The suspected murderer was walking free despite a long history of violent crimes.
It raises anew some highly valid questions about the judgment of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who once commuted this convict's sentence. This violent miscarriage of justice should remind all governors and presidents that pardons and commutations should be granted sparingly - and almost never for violent crimes.
The facts are stark and horrifying. The accused killer, a man named Maurice Clemmons, had been released from jail in Pierce County, Wash., just six days earlier even though charges were pending for second-degree rape of a child and he faced seven other felony charges in Washington for punching a police officer in the face.
Earlier, in Arkansas, he was serving 60-year and 48-year sentences for various violent crimes and faced another 95 years on other charges. However, after he had served just 11 years in prison and over vociferous objections from county prosecutors, Mr. Huckabee commuted Clemmons' sentences in 2000.
It was just one of the more than 1,000 clemencies issued by Mr. Huckabee during his term in office. At one point, the Arkansas Leader newspaper documented that Mr. Huckabee had given clemency to more convicts than all of the governors in the six states surrounding Arkansas combined. A disturbing number of the freed jailbirds were violent criminals, some of whom went on to commit more violent crimes after being let go by the governor.
The broader lesson here is that governors and presidents generally should leave clemency decisions for violent offenders to trained parole boards. Sure, there is good reason for giving chief clemency powers to chief executives. We know of cases that cry out for pardons, including people imprisoned by overzealous bureaucrats and prosecutors for such crimes as packing lobster tails in plastic instead of cardboard or of submitting the wrong paperwork for imported orchids.
But murderers and rapists are a different matter. A single executive, with hundreds of other responsibilities, is unlikely to be familiar enough with each case and each personality to determine if an individual convict is a threat to strike again. If a judge and jury, upon due consideration, imposed a certain sentence on a violent criminal and an expert parole board has not seen fit to reduce the sentence, a governor or president treads on thin ice in overruling them.
It's an injustice that four officers of the peace had to die to teach Mr. Huckabee that lesson.