Our Justice System and Ticking Time Bombs
Attention all parole boards. Attention all governors who may be contemplating year-end commutations of inmate sentences. Also, may I have the attention of all judges who routinely bang the gavel at bail hearings and allow dangerous career criminals back on our streets?
It doesn't matter how overcrowded our prisons are — it's time to rethink what you're doing!
Please, look closely at the recent case of 37-year-old Maurice Clemmons, the career criminal who got break after break from civil servants in two states (Arkansas and Washington) and then fell through the cracks of our justice system's so-called safety net. The end result was an execution-style shooting spree in Lakewood, Wash., that left four dedicated police officers dead over a coffee shop breakfast table.
It's what can happen when a parole board, a governor or a judge fails to keep the rest of us safe.
Clemmons was bad news for a long time. In junior high school in Arkansas, he was arrested for bringing a 25 caliber gun to class. While still a minor, he was convicted of five felonies and sentenced to 48 years in prison. In 1990, when he was 18, Clemmons was convicted again on several additional counts of burglary and theft and got 60 more years in prison — a 108-year prison sentence for a hardened teenager and still his sentence was commuted.
In applying for release, Clemmons wrote that he'd come "from a very good Christian family" and had never been in trouble with the law before he was forced to move from Seattle to Arkansas at the age of 16. "I'd just moved away from all my childhood friends and had no friends in Arkansas. (It was) a very crime ridden neighborhood ... I was unable to resist the negative influence of the other neighborhood boys."
In the spring of 2000, Arkansas' then-governor, Mike Huckabee, took his parole board's recommendation and set Clemmons free.
You'd think getting a second chance like that would set a person on a more righteous path — but not Clemmons. Less than a year later, he was back in prison on a parole violation. Astonishingly, the state of Arkansas released Clemmons again in 2004.
In retrospect, we can now say those were two major mistakes by officials in Arkansas. But the state of Washington isn't blameless, either.
Clemmons was approved to transfer back to his native Washington shortly after his 2004 release from prison.
Flash forward to May 2009. Police in Tacoma, where Clemmons lived with his wife and ran a landscaping business, came to learn just how mentally deranged he had become. They were called by family members worried about his frightening behavior. Clemmons had been throwing rocks at neighbors and their cars. He had ominously forced relatives, including children, to strip naked on Sundays. He reportedly claimed he could fly, that the Secret Service was out to get him and that President Obama would soon visit to confirm that he was the new messiah. On Sunday, May 10, 2009, Clemmons viciously attacked two sheriff's deputies.
No matter, Pierce County, Wash., has an astonishingly lax system that allows defendants to post bond and go home without ever facing a judge if it happens to be a holiday or a weekend. That's exactly what Clemmons did.
In July of this year, authorities filed charges that finally landed Clemmons in jail again. He was accused of raping a 12-year-old female relative. While incarcerated for several months, officials in both Washington and Arkansas argued about who should take Clemmons. Prosecutors in Washington tried to assert that he was a fugitive in violation of his Arkansas-based transfer papers and should be shipped back. Arkansas officials sent word they had no intention of reclaiming Clemmons and washed their hands of his case.
That left Clemmons' fate up to two judges in Pierce County. Judge John McCarthy heard the assault case and set bail at $40,000. Judge Thomas Felnagle caught the child rape case and set Clemmon's bail at $150,000. Prosecutors thought both amounts were too low. Clemmons found a bail bondsman to get him out.
Six days later, those four Lakewood officers were dead.
The rest is well known. Clemmons was shot dead in the street and in possession of one of the slain officer's guns. Several of Clemmons' cohorts were arrested on charges of aiding his escape.
What isn't known is how many other parole boards, governors, judges and — yes — even bail bondsmen have helped release ticking time bombs like Maurice Clemmons. And here we thought we had a safety net.
Visit Diane Dimond's official website at www.dianedimond.com for investigative reporting, polls and more. To find out more about Diane Dimond and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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