Pardon Me, Huckabee

Allen Hunt

12/7/2009 12:00:13 AM - Allen Hunt

As unpopular as it may be, I stand and applaud Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas. Given the heat he is taking right now, he could stand a little praise, not so much for political purposes but for moral ones.

In 2000, Huckabee, then the governor of Arkansas, commuted the sentence of Maurice Clemmons. Nine years later, it appears that Clemmons murdered in cold blood four police officers in a Seattle suburb this past weekend. As a result, voices from every imaginable perspective clamor for the end of any future political aspirations Huckabee may have. Critics claim Huckabee is soft on crime and short on judgment. The prosecutor who convicted Clemmons expresses outrage, the governor of Washington voices dismay, and media pundits relish the ironic opportunity to lampoon a conservative Christian for being soft on crime.

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However, Huckabee should be praised not hung in effigy. In no way do I seek to diminish the horror of murdering four police officers, nor do I seek to claim that Clemmons was a fine person. Instead, I choose to focus on Huckabee's core belief that humans beings have the capacity for change. As human beings, we can grow and develop, learn from our mistakes, correct course, and become better versions of ourselves. That moral capacity separates us from apes and roaches.

That belief in the capacity for life change has shaped Huckabee's decisions to offer second chances and redemption for those who appear to offer the potential for such life change. Those core beliefs certainly stem from his Christian faith, a faith that emphasizes forgiveness and second chances, but those beliefs are not exclusive to Christianity at all. In fact, America has been built on the idea of second chances, from the motley crew of undesirables and convicts who settled Georgia with General Oglethorpe to the lessons in failure and renewal embodied in the stories of Americans as varied as the oft-failing politician, Abraham Lincoln, and the persistent entrepreneur, Tom Monaghan.

Offering second chances is not without its risks. Then again, serving as a governor involves risks. All leadership does. As the old saying goes, every ship is safe as long as it is in the harbor, but that is not what ships are made for, is it? Some decisions prove prophetic and wise; some decisions ultimately fail, sometimes in very ugly ways.

In his ten and a half years in office, Huckabee pardoned or commuted the sentences of 1,033 individuals. That was twice as many clemencies as were granted by his three immediate predecessors combined. Clearly, Huckabee had, and likely continues to have, a propensity for offering second chances.

His 1,033 second-chance decisions yielded three very high profile failures. Huckabee lobbied for parole for Wayne Dumond, who ultimately used his freedom to rape and murder at least one more victim before he himself died in prison. Huckabee sought to offer clemency to Glen Green, an Air Force sergeant convicted in a brutal rape and murder, but Huckabee's request met with such strong public outcry that it never came to fruition. Finally, Huckabee's decision to commute the sentence of Maurice Clemmons in 2000 ultimately brought about the tragedy in Seattle last weekend.

Clemmons had served eleven years of his 108 year sentence when the governor intervened on his behalf. When seeking mercy, Clemmons asked Huckabee to answer Clemmons' prayers for a God-given chance to “make a new start.”

"I read a stack this thick," Huckabee has said, holding his hands several inches apart. "I looked at the file. Every bit of it. And here was a case where a guy had been given 108 years. Now, if you think a 108-year sentence is an appropriate sentence for a 16-year-old for the crimes he committed, then you should run for governor of Arkansas." Then- Governor Huckabee granted that request, a decision which made Clemmons eligible for parole. The parole board then signed off on giving Clemmons the second chance he so violently squandered last weekend.

As horrible as these three situations became, one must admit that 3 failures in 1033 decisions proves to be a reasonably effective rate of success in using pardons and clemency. Of course, others of those 1033 may have relapsed into crime. We simply do not know all the details. A Department of Justice study of thousands of inmates released in 1994 showed that about two-thirds showed up in criminal records again within three years. While we do not know the outcome of each and every Huckabee clemency decision, at first glance, his policies appear to produce convincingly positive results.

Hind-sight is easy, and it always proves highly effective. Of course, everyone can see now that the Clemmons commutation resulted in disaster. Mike Huckabee himself acknowledges, that with perfect knowledge and foresight, he would not make that decision again. “If I could have known nine years ago this guy was capable of something of this magnitude, obviously, I would never have granted a commutation," Huckabee has said. The problem is that none of us has perfect knowledge and foresight.

Leaders do not get paid to choose inaction. Effective leaders take risks. Nor do leaders succeed when they give up on human potential. A wise leader gathers as much information as possible, weighs the risks, and seeks prudence and wisdom before offering a second chance. A poor leader simply says “No” to any request to ensure that he or she is never wrong. That strategy may gain election, but it requires no courage, no compassion, no wisdom. Just blind obedience to a policy.

If we want governors to get out of the pardon and clemency business altogether, we should continue the public excoriation of Huckabee that currently prevails. In the end, we will have public office holders who merely enforce rules and eschew meaningful thought or any idea of the individual application of mercy. If we want governors instead to be wise, caring leaders, we will offer comfort to the families of the four slain Seattle police officers, and grace to decision-makers, including Huckabee, who seek to make wise, redemptive decisions based on the best information available.

Redemption is risky business, but it reveals the best of who we are as human beings even if it occasionally also reveals the worst. If a candidate is not willing to take risks, he/she has no business being a leader.