On the morning of Nov. 29, 2009, Maurice Clemmons walked into a coffee shop outside of Tacoma, WA. Moments later, he fatally shot four police officers, and fled.
The Seattle Times' coverage of what swiftly became a national story earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. One element of the story even became a factor in the presidential aspirations of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. He had run for the presidency in 2008, and many thought would try again in 2012. Then it came to light that as governor in 2000 he granted a clemency petition from Clemmons, who was serving a 108-year sentence for eight felonies committed in his youth.
But this act of mercy went awry. Clemmons spent the years following his release cycling through prisons and jails, his madness and festering hate growing until he snapped on Nov. 29. He was killed by police two days after the shooting. As the country tried to make sense of the violence, Clemmons became Huckabee's “Willie Horton,” tainting a future run for the White House.
Though the story eventually faded from the national headlines, the Times team decided to look deeper. Mining details from more than 100 hours of jail phone calls, thousands of public records and dozens of interviews, reporters Ken Armstrong and Jonathan Martin, along with others in the newsroom staff, produced a book that explores what drove an armed and angry Clemmons into the coffee shop that morning. The Other Side of Mercy: A Killer's Journey Across the American Divide was published in 2010.
The Crime Report wanted to provide readers with a look at some earlier award-winning criminal justice reporting in the week that this year's Pulitzers were announced, and take note of the fact that one of the authors (Armstrong) was a winner this year for his investigation of methadone treatment in Washington state.
The Other Side of Mercy shows how a talented reporting team can go beyond breaking-news reporting to create a gripping narrative that tackles tough questions about criminal justice politics and policy, particularly about the quality of mercy in our criminal justice system: when do we punish, and when do we forgive?
The Crime Report spoke to Armstrong and Martin in early April about the book, which in 2010 also won the Tom Renner award from Investigative Reporters and Editors.
The Crime Report: What nuance and understanding that wasn’t in the original news stories did you hope to impart with your book?
Ken Armstrong: From the initial days of the reporting, we knew that we had a trove of records that really provided a lot of context and history that we weren’t able to tell fully in the newspaper. A book would allow us to do that.
One example is clemency. You can look at what [Arkansas Gov.] Mike Huckabee did in this case and you can criticize him because of what happened in the aftermath, what Maurice Clemmons wound up doing. But unless you have the fuller picture of what Clemmons' history was, when he came before the governor, and what that governor did with that information, I think it's harder to evaluate the merits of what Huckabee did. A book would allow us to look at Huckabee's record on clemency in full, and then to look at what he did in this case in particular.
TCR: As you began to dig into the clemency process, did you struggle at all with how to talk about what happened?
Armstrong: Every reporter sees instances of political cowardice in the arena of clemency. We’re accustomed to seeing executives whose first impulse is to deny clemency because the political risks were too high.
Mike Huckabee went in the other direction. He was a champion for an issue that really needed a champion. The shame of it is that in this instance and in others he wound up acting in a way that really hurt his cause much more than it helped it. When you look at Maurice Clemmons, one of the items you’re looking at is, “is there evidence of rehabilitation?” When you look at his file there is no evidence of rehabilitation. Quite the opposite. There's evidence of somebody who has committed all kinds of disciplinary violations while in prison.
The shame of it is that I think [Huckabee's] heart was in the right place in terms of saying there is a place for mercy when you’re in political office. But I’m not sure he used that power with as much care as he could have or should have.
Jonathan Martin: I went to Arkansas and tried to answer some very specific questions for the book. I was really struck by the socio-political history of the prison system there and I got a better understanding about why Huckabee would say what he said about clemency. There’s certainly a racial history tied up in the criminal justice system in Arkansas. So I thought that was an interesting idea to go further on both to explain what happened and also play the watchdog role.
TCR: The book uses an incredible trove of information–criminal records, agency communications and more than 100 hours of recorded phone calls Clemmons made from jail. What were the hurdles to getting the information?
Armstrong: We had trouble getting records from Arkansas. Arkansas has a much more restrictive public records law than Washington does. But what we were able to do was simply tap into Washington agencies that had possession of the Arkansas records. For example, Maurice Clemmons’ Department of Corrections file from Arkansas – that had been shared with Washington authorities after the shooting. We were able to get those Arkansas records from Washington, whereas in Arkansas they were claiming executive privilege, and various other exemptions to their public records law.
Martin: We went to the state Supreme Court on a public records request for the underlying police reports. A huge volume of records were denied because there were pending criminal charges against the so called “Clemmons Seven” that were accused of aiding him on the run. The public records request that worked its way up to the Supreme Court ended up setting a precedent for access to public records, access to police reports, while there are criminal charges pending.
TCR: Is there anything that you feel you still don’t know, or feel like you’re missing?
Armstrong: Records in Arkansas [from] the governor's office haven’t been released. They cite executive privilege for not releasing those. I don’t know how voluminous those records might be. There might be little at all. But 10, 20 years from now, if they ever go into a library somewhere, I certainly would like to have a chance to look at those to see what memos if any were written by members of his staff, evaluating the file, and seeing if Mike Huckabee ever put any words on paper about his thoughts on the case, other than the forms he wound up signing.
To me that’s one of the record sources that’s still missing: what happened in the Arkansas governor’s office?
TCR: How unique did you feel the breakdowns were in the criminal justice system, in Clemmons' case? Was this the exception or the rule?
Armstrong: When you look at bail, and fugitive warrants, and supervision and clemency—in all those instances you can find other cases where there are breakdowns. What’s unusual is to have all of those elements intersect in this one case of this one man’s life.
In some ways Clemmons' life was sort of an exodus when you look at his movements through the Arkansas penitentiary system, and then the interstate compact system comes into play, clemency comes into play, and it happens to come into play with a very notable political figure, somebody who later goes on to become a presidential candidate. It seemed like he highlighted a lot of these fault lines all at one time, in a way that was incredibly dramatic because of what he wound up doing.
TCR: One of the things that struck me was the idea of mercy that you weave throughout the book. Why was that something you felt you needed to highlight?
Armstrong: It played such a critical role here. You write a lot about stories that don’t have any easy answers. This was one that didn’t.
It’s very understandable to look at Clemmon’s history and have sympathy for the circumstances of his background. But then you look at what he did when he faced different forks in the road. He always took the wrong for–every time. It becomes very complicated in terms of saying, when is mercy warranted, when is it not? I think the same things play out in the choices Mike Huckabee had. Even if his impulses were understandable, when you look at the specifics of Maurice Clemmons’ file, it’s much more difficult to understand why he felt this was somebody deserving of mercy, given the lack of evidence of rehabilitation.
I think that the reason we used the word so much was it was at the heart of Maurice Clemmons' background, it was consistently what he was asking for—he was always asking for mercy—and it's what he was given, in at least this one dramatic instance. We’re looking at what he did with this second chance he received.
TCR: Did this case change how Washington thinks about “mercy”?
Martin: I do quite a bit of reporting on the criminal justice system, on jails and prisons. There’s a very strong feeling that Maurice Clemmons closed the door on mercy.
The clemency process here is much different than it is in Arkansas. The governor has been much more reluctant to issue pardons and commutations. There is an occasional pardon or a commutation that are issued here, but the process is very, very restrictive. Usually the [appeals] that are taken seriously are based on cases where there is an extraordinary amount of redemption and rehabilitation that could be documented. [If you ask any inmate who is appealing for a commutation or pardon] they all say, “you know, Maurice Clemmons really kind of closed that door for me.”
TCR: Is there anything else you discovered?
Martin: Frankly one of the things I’ve found interesting about the clemency process is that since the book has been produced, there have been many more acts of clemency for budgetary purposes. You really see states releasing people on commutations and pardons, or in some cases medical paroles, because the states are broke. I find that it's an interesting return in some cases to the idea of mercy—not necessarily for reasons of mercy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
Lisa Riordan Seville is the deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.