The Maurice Clemmons Case: Finger Pointing and Political Squabbling Overlook the 'Little Picture'

You can read dueling reports this morning on whose justice system is responsible for the deaths of four Lakewood police officers. The P-I's Joel Connelly says it's ex-Arkansas Gov. and presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee, who once commuted the sentence of future alleged cop killer Maurice Clemmons. The Times' Danny Westneat less specifically says it's "We," our system that let Clemmons out of jail six days before the Lakewood officers were mowed down in a Pierce County coffee shop. And the News Tribune reports that Pierce County officials are blaming Arkansas, which is blaming Pierce County.

Of course, assuming the claims and evidence are true, and they appear to be, it was Maurice Clemmons who killed the four officers last Sunday morning. And whatever his irrational reasoning was to be there, Clemmons was allowed to do so not because of politics or "systems" but because of a specific final decision by a judge - who may or may not have had the information he needed to make a balanced decision on bail.

In front of the judge was - or should have been - the history of Maurice Clemmons' life in crime, his dangerous mental state, and a planned Third Strike prosecution that would put him in prison for life. The judge could take all that into consideration in deciding whether to release Clemmons.

"People want judges to follow the law," Bryan Chushcoff, Pierce County's presiding judge told the News Tribune in another story - about the bail process, the crucial factor of the Clemmons story. "The state constitution says we have to set bail and we can't set all cash. We have to set reasonable bail. We have to allow bonds until there's been a conviction."

Clemmons, dating back to May when he was arrested for assaulting an officer and malicious mischief, faced bail three different times in Pierce County Superior Court, a total of $420,000 in bonds. He made bail all three times posting a total of $42,000 cash (ten percent of the bonds, levied by the bail bonding companies).

He was allowed out the first time by booking bail - posting a bond on a weekend without seeing a judge. The second time, facing a child rape charge, he faced a no-bail situation after Arkansas, learning of his Washington arrest, issued a fugitive warrant for earlier crimes there.

The News Tribune recounts the bail-outs in detail, noting he at one point was jailed for three months while prosecutors ordered a mental health examination related to his competency to stand trial. He wasn't legally crazy, but he was dangerously mad.

His final bail hearing was Nov. 12, before Judge Thomas Felnagle. Prosecutors argued for a $200,000 bond. Felnagle's decisions mirrored an early judge's ruling: He set bail at $40,000 for the assault case, and $150,000 for the child rape charge. Felnagle did not respond to a request for comment as to why.

"On Nov. 24," the Trib reports, "Clemmons posted bail with Jail Sucks Bonds - the third time he'd bailed out of jail in seven months. 'He actually posted $420,000 worth of bail over the course of this deal,' [Judge] Chushcoff said. 'Most people can't do that.'"

The Trib's story ends there, but it's maddeningly incomplete since Felnagle wouldn't explain his decision. Did he in fact have all the background on Clemmons before him? Did the prosecutors' office and the police present a solid case, with all this history we are now hearing, that would have prevented Clemmons' release?

The guess is: No. Those who work in the justice system, and those who have been writing about it for a long time, will tell you that the necessary records are almost always incomplete, inaccurate or unavailable, and decisions such as the release of Clemmons are typically made without full knowledge of the potential threat.

In 2006, Seattle Weekly reported on the case of cop-shooter Wilford Armstead, who was out running around with a gun and nearly killed a Renton police officer, despite his 25 felonies. In June, this year, SW reported on a career criminal named Stacy Stith with no less than 112 criminal convictions. We say no less because there likely are more. Records, uh, are incomplete.

In both cases, judge after judge, court after court, continued to lock up and release both men without ever seemingly getting the big picture of their crimes, due mainly to an incomplete presentation of their records and threats to the community.

Without the judge's explanation, you can assume that little picture was behind Clemmons' release as well. And that, when all the speechifying is done, little will have changed. We will not be hearing about the late Maurice Clemmons' future crimes. But you shouldn't be surprised to someday read again about Armstead, facing his 26th, or Stith, facing his 113th. Just saying.

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