As he surges in polls, Mike Huckabee has come under increased scrutiny for granting an excessive number of clemencies during his time as governor of Arkansas. While it is tempting to glaze over the details of what seem like old controversies, his past actions need to be considered within the context of Huckabee’s desire to be the nation’s commander in chief during a time of war. Quite simply, his disturbing penchant for giving second chances to violent criminals raises serious questions about whether he has the steely resolve required to stand up to rogue regimes and carry on the fight against Islamic terrorists.
Much of the discussion about Huckabee’s record on clemency has centered around the release of convicted rapist Wayne Dumond, who went on to murder a woman in Missouri after being let out of prison under Huckabee’s watch. While there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Huckabee played a role in Dumond’s release, Huckabee denies it. But even if one were to give him the benefit of the doubt in this instance, it does not explain away the rest of his record.
Over the course of his 10 and a half years as governor, Huckabee granted a staggering 1,033 clemencies, according to the Associated Press. That was more than double the combined 507 that were granted during the 17 and a half years of his three predecessors: Bill Clinton, Frank White, and Jim Guy Tucker.
In many cases, Huckabee’s actions set loose savage criminals convicted of grisly murders over the passionate objections of prosecutors and victims’ families.
“I felt like Huckabee had more compassion for the murderers than he ever did for the victims,” Elaine Colclasure, co-leader of the Central Arkansas chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, a group that works on behalf of victims’ families, told TAS. “He was kind of like a defense attorney. He couldn’t see the pain and suffering that the victims were going through.”
Among the violent criminals Huckabee granted clemency to were Denver Witham, who was “convicted of beating a man to death with a lead pipe at a bar,” according to the AP; Robert A. Arnold Jr., who was convicted of killing his father in law; Willy Way Jr., who pled guilty to shooting a grocery store owner as his wife looked on; and James Maxwell, who murdered a reverend. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, when the reverend’s daughter met with Huckabee to plead that Maxwell be denied clemency, Huckabee “‘affectionately referred’ to her father’s killer as ‘Jim.'”
Larry Jegley, a prosecuting attorney from Arkansas’s 6th judicial district, which encompasses Little Rock, was a fierce critic of Huckabee’s clemency policies throughout his time as governor. Jegley told TAS that jurors who had voted to convict criminals complained to him that Huckabee’s commutations disrespected their service. Meanwhile, Huckabee’s willingness to grant clemency complicated plea bargain agreements, Jegley said, because he could no longer assure victims’ families that a murderer would not be eligible for parole prematurely. When he tried to make such assurances, he recalled, families would snap back, “Well, Mike Huckabee lets people out all the time.” Huckabee’s decision to offer commutations to violent criminals were so frequent, that it forced Jegley to call a press conference on the matter. Jegley is a Democrat, which some may argue makes him biased. But nonetheless, it is quite novel for a Republican to be under fire from a Democrat for being too soft on criminals.
When Huckabee did backpedal on his decisions, it was only after tremendous public pressure, or, in one case, a lawsuit.
In 2004, Huckabee agreed to commute the sentence of Don Jeffers, who pled guilty to beating and strangling a man to death in 1980. The Saline County Prosecuting Attorney at the time, Robert Herzfeld, another Democrat, wrote to Huckabee to complain about the decision and request an explanation, according to the Arkansas News Bureau. Herzfeld received a letter from Huckabee’s adviser on criminal justice in response that said, “the governor read your letter and laughed out loud.” The commutation was eventually stopped, but only after Herzfeld sued Huckabee and the state attorney general’s office concluded that certain procedures were not properly followed.
Later that year, Huckabee created a firestorm when he announced his plans to grant clemency to Dennis Lewis, who shot and killed a pawnshop owner in a robbery, and Glen Martin Green. As Arkansas Leader columnist Garrick Feldman described it, Green “beat an 18-year-old woman with Chinese martial-arts sticks, raped her as she barely clung to life, ran over her with his car, then dumped her in the bayou…” Under intense public scrutiny, Huckabee reversed his decision weeks later, and vowed to be more open about his reasoning for making such choices in the future.
But because Huckabee gave little explanation for his decisions for much of his time as governor, it created a vacuum for others to draw educated conclusions. In a long 2004 investigative article, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette found that prisoners had a better chance of being granted clemency by Huckabee if they had a mutual acquaintance, labored at the governor’s mansion under a prisoner work program, or a minister intervened on their behalf.
While there are opportunities to debate his motivations further, there should be no disputing the fact that Huckabee’s proclivity for releasing violent criminals into society warrants close examination by Republican primary voters trying to determine whether he could be trusted as the leader of the free world during a time of war. Some may argue that this is an unfair basis by which to evaluate Huckabee. But while it may be an imperfect comparison, given that Huckabee has no foreign policy experience, the only way to judge him is to explore his actions as governor.
Huckabee has already given conservatives ample reason to fear that he is out of his depth when it comes to foreign policy. Last week, he pleaded ignorance when asked about the National Intelligence Estimate, one of the most important national security stories of the year. As the National Review noted in a scathing editorial on Monday, Huckabee has used populist appeals as a substitute for knowledge of international affairs. “I may not be the expert that some people are on foreign policy, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night,” he joked to Don Imus. At other times, Huckabee has resorted to making absurd analogies in a ham-handed attempt to put complex problems in human terms. In arguing for launching diplomatic relations with Iran, he said, “all of us know that when we stop talking to a parent or a sibling or a friend, it’s impossible to accomplish anything, impossible to resolve differences and move the relationship forward. The same is true for countries.” One does not know where to start when critiquing a major presidential candidate who makes a serious comparison between engaging in diplomacy with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and resolving trivial family disputes. Forget the comparisons to Jimmy Carter — do conservatives want Bill Cosby to be commander in chief?
Just as Huckabee has cited executions in Arkansas as evidence that he was not as soft on criminals as the rest of his record strongly suggests, his defenders have pointed to examples of tough foreign policy statements he has made to argue that he is not as weak-kneed on national security as he seems. “I would prefer to skip the next attack [on the United States] and the exasperated fury it will rightly generate and cut to the chase by going after Al Qaeda’s safe haven in Pakistan,” Huckabee said at a September speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But vacillating from one extreme to the other is not an example of intelligent foreign policy — it’s indicative of inexperience. Wasn’t it just a few months ago that conservatives were slamming Barack Obama for wanting to negotiate with Iran and invade Pakistan?
America is in the midst of a historic struggle against radical Islam and faces a series of enormous foreign policy challenges. Those considering voting for Huckabee for the highest office in the land need to look at not only his words but his time as governor to determine whether he is the type of strong leader America requires to guide the nation through this difficult time. If his disturbing record of extending forgiveness to the most violent of criminals is any indication of how he would govern as president, there is cause for grave concern.
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