Suspected cop-killer Maurice Clemmons is dead. Who is to blame for releasing him from prison?
Maurice Clemmons would have been the first to say that a man needs to be held accountable for his actions.
"There is absolutely no excuse/justification for my past criminal behavior," he wrote 10 years ago in a clemency application to then–Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, pleading for "mercy" regarding the 108-year sentence he was serving at the time for two robberies and other crimes he'd committed when he was 16.
This was back when Clemmons was purportedly a God-fearing man. Back before he allegedly came to believe, sometime this summer, that he himself was God—Jesus Christ, to be exact, with an ability to fly. ("He reportedly thinks he can fly away and at one point was found in the backyard jumping," says a Pierce County police report from July.) It was back before authorities suspected Clemmons of shooting four Lakewood police officers at a coffee shop on November 29, execution-style, in the worst police killing in Washington State history. Before Clemmons was the subject of a sprawling, chaotic, nearly two-day-long manhunt that consumed SWAT teams and patrol officers all over Seattle and the surrounding region. Before several of Clemmons's family members and friends were rounded up and accused of helping him elude authorities. Before the manhunt finally ended, in the early morning hours of December 1, with Clemmons being shot dead by a lone Seattle officer on patrol in Rainier Valley.
In that old plea to Huckabee, Clemmons cast himself as a young man who had been raised in "a good Christian family," made the mistake of falling in with a bad crowd when he moved to Arkansas from Seattle as a teenager, and received an excessively harsh sentence for his youthful errors—a man who now found himself sitting in prison lamenting that he'd "never done anything good for God" and sincerely wanted a chance to make "a brand-new start."
Huckabee believed him. The Republican governor—who went on to run for president in 2008 and remains a potential 2012 presidential contender—offered clemency to Clemmons in May of 2000, setting him on the path to parole and, Huckabee hoped, a life redeemed by executive leniency.
It wasn't unusual for Huckabee to do this; during his time in office, he granted more than 1,000 clemencies—more than twice as many as the three previous Arkansas governors combined. But almost immediately after Huckabee granted this clemency, Clemmons violated his parole and was sent back to an Arkansas jail for involvement in a robbery.
He was paroled again in 2003, and this time was allowed to move to Washington, where he ran a landscaping business near Tacoma and lived a life free of major run-ins with the law until this summer—when, according to allegations in court records and recent police statements, he began a steep slide into criminal violence, throwing rocks at neighbors and their property, punching a sheriff's deputy in the face, raping a 12-year-old girl, and, finally, on November 29, shooting four police officers at Lakewood's Forza Coffee, near his home.
Two days later, at around 2:45 a.m., a Seattle police officer happened upon Clemmons while checking out an unoccupied stolen car in South Seattle. Authorities say Clemmons snuck up behind the cop, carrying a gun he'd stolen from one of the officers he'd killed two days earlier, and, after being spotted, refused commands to surrender.
The hunt for Clemmons is now over, but a huge question—as important to the local criminal-justice and mental-health systems as it is to the political future of Huckabee—remains: Who is responsible for the destruction wreaked by Clemmons this year?
Naturally, everyone involved is pointing in a different direction.
If you ask Huckabee, the responsibility lies with "a series of failures in the criminal-justice system in both Arkansas and Washington State." If you ask Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, who on November 30 gently interviewed Huckabee (who is also working as a Fox News commentator these days), the responsibility falls on two Washington judges who earlier this month allowed Clemmons to be released on $190,000 bail (not, as O'Reilly falsely said on air, $15,000 bail).
"They will be held accountable," O'Reilly said of the judges. "It's not your fault, Governor."
If you were able to ask Clemmons's Federal Way lawyer, Daniel Murphy, you would presumably hear that blame lies with his client's temporary insanity. Murphy, reached by phone, declined to talk to The Stranger, but court records show that on July 30, he informed a Pierce County superior court judge that Clemmons intended to plead not guilty to the child rape and assault charges "by reason of insanity and/or temporarily experiencing diminished capacity at the time of the offense."
If you ask psychiatrists at Western State Hospital, who earlier this year were tasked by the court with evaluating Clemmons's competency to stand trial, it all might just have been a result of the normal difficulties of life. According to their October 19 report, first obtained by the Tacoma News Tribune and later described in further detail by the Seattle Times, Clemmons said that around the time of his alleged child rape and officer assault in early May, he had been having visions of "people drinking blood and people eating babies." But when the Western State psychiatrists interviewed Clemmons in October, they saw "no evidence of disturbance," deemed him competent to stand trial, and had no formal diagnosis for him "other than stress," as the Seattle Times put it.
If you ask people close to Clemmons, it would probably all come back to the fact that in May he suddenly appeared to be "having a mental breakdown" and going "crazy" and was clearly "not in his right mind," according to statements his family members and friends made in police reports at the time.
If you ask some local law-enforcement officials, responsibility lies with Arkansas authorities, who on July 22 dropped a "no-bail warrant" that could have prevented Clemmons from being released on bail just days before the November 29 cop killings.
Clearly, there was no shortage of human and systemic failures that ultimately allowed Clemmons to go free when he should have been locked up. Consider this simple distillation: A man set free nearly 10 years ago by Huckabee, dragging around a criminal record dating back to his teenage years, had appeared in a Pierce County court in July and announced that he intended to claim he'd been out of his mind when he raped a young girl and assaulted a police officer in May. After which, two Western State psychiatrists—despite their inability to see any signs of disturbance in this man in October—said he represented an "increased risk for future dangerous behavior and for committing future criminal acts." Nevertheless, he was released on bail, and soon thereafter allegedly wandered into a coffee shop and began firing off rounds at four police officers.
But beneath all the failure-exposing and blame-shuffling are more difficult, ultimately unanswerable questions. Was Clemmons a fundamentally decent man who made some childhood mistakes, had the book thrown at him for them, received a generous second chance from Huckabee, and did the best he could with it until, in his 37th year of life, he suddenly snapped? Or was Clemmons always closer to being "the Beast," as he reportedly described himself this summer, a dark-hearted manipulator benefiting from criminal assistance by his friends and family, and running an extremely long con that variously tricked Huckabee, his own lawyer, and multiple Washington State officials into repeatedly promoting his reentry into society? Or was he a combination of unstable psychic elements in need of smart psychiatric intervention that he simply never received?
The paradox of his death at the hands of the Seattle police officer is that, while the community may now feel safer, it will never know the answer—will never know for sure who it really was that was terrorizing them.