Lakewood police memorial: killings may spur changes for offenders

The Lakewood police memorial honored the four officers who were killed in a shocking ambush on Nov. 29. Their deaths could affect how states consider commuting prison sentences.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A Washington State trooper stands next to a hearse bearing one of four fallen Lakewood officers, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009, at the Tacoma Dome.
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    The flag-draped caskets of the four Lakewood Police Department officers arrive at a memorial service in Tacoma, Washington, Tuesday.
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Thousands of police officers from around the country gathered Tuesday for a Lakewood police memorial in suburban Seattle, honoring four colleagues killed in a shocking ambush on Nov. 29.

The ceremony amounted to the largest such gathering in the state of Washington's history, with more than 2,000 law enforcement vehicles – some from as far away as Boston and New York – snaking their way through Tacoma. Their destination was the memorial at the Tacoma Dome for the four from Lakewood, Wash. – Sgt. Mark Renninger and officers Tina Griswold, Greg Richards, and Ronald Owens.

The massive turnout for the memorial – hundreds of Washingtonians braved freezing temperatures to watch the procession – is a testament to the outrage over the killings. The deaths may eventually change how this state sets bail for repeat offenders – and they could even impact how other states consider commuting prison sentences.

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Maurice Clemmons, who is accused of gunning down the officers in a Parkland, Wash., coffee shop, was a parolee from Arkansas with a violent criminal past who had been arrested numerous times in Washington. He was killed last Tuesday by a Seattle police officer after a massive statewide manhunt.

Mr. Clemmons had made bail six days before allegedly gunning down the officers. He had been arrested on assault and second-degree rape charges.

Soon after it was announced that Clemmons was the primary suspect, news emerged that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had commuted his 108-year prison sentence, given for a string of violent robberies and burglaries. Suddenly the officers' deaths took on a political dimension as Mr. Huckabee, who many expect to vie for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, was at the center of the controversy.

"If I could have possibly known what Clemmons would do nine years later, I obviously would have made a different decision. If I only had the same information I had then, I would make the same decision," Huckabee wrote in the Washington Post on Monday.

"Maurice Clemmons was 16 years old when he committed the crimes of burglary and robbery. He was sentenced to a total of 108 years in prison, dramatically outside the norm for sentencing for the crimes he committed and the age at which he committed them," he wrote.

The Clemmons case could have a chilling effect on governors when it comes to granting clemencies in the future, sentencing experts say.

"For many governors, the quick response is, 'Huckabee is getting all this attention, so this is the last place I want to be.' They are going to be much more reluctant," Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington-based Sentencing Project, told CNN.

A debate over his recent release from a county jail in Washington has also sparked debate between Arkansas and Washington. According to Washington authorities, officials in Arkansas did not properly handle a "no bail" warrant for Clemmons that would have kept him in jail until his trial on the rape and assault charges.

Under the state's three-strikes law, Clemmons was facing a lifetime prison sentence.

Washington state lawmakers have already moved to introduce legislation changing how the state handles bail for repeat offenders. According to current state law, a reasonable bail must be set for all offenders except those accused of capital offenses.

"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," Judge Bryan Chushcoff told The News Tribune in Tacoma.

State Sen. Mike Carrell wants to adjust state law so that defendants facing the possibility of a life sentence would be held without bail.

"Maurice Clemmons was sent a letter by the Pierce County prosecutor's office informing him that it was going to try him as a persistent offender and put him behind bars for life," Senator Carrell said in a statement. "After learning of that, Clemmons could have felt that he had nothing left to lose.... We need to make sure that never, ever happens again, and my bill is just the way to do that."

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