Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Things We'll Never Know

I've been following the story of Maurice Clemmons, the suspect wanted for the killing of four police officers in Seattle. I don't have any connection to the case, but his story is familiar to me from thousands of inmates like him I've met over the years.

In addition to the media reports, I reviewed the parole and clemency documentation published here.

Here's what strikes me about the case:

Clemmons was a repeat offender who committed new crimes every few months until he turned eighteen. The longest break in his criminal activity was the eleven years that he was in the Arkansas prison system. We don't know what he was involved in before that because juvenile records are generally sealed.

He was already under court supervision when he was convicted of the robbery and theft that sent him to prison in 1990. Even though he was only about eighteen, the judge slammed him: over a hundred consecutive years for what (in Baltimore at least) would have been a ten year sentence, max. When he was first considered for parole, the board would have granted him parole only under one condition (a "firm" condition, as handwritten onto the parole document): that he leave the state. This was not your average offender.

He asked to have his sentence reconsidered, and was granted a reduction by a new judge who noted that she didn't understand why he had been given so much time. (There was no discussion of the reasoning behind this decision other than that the sentence seemed excessive. No discussion of his previous offenses or the nature of the index crimes.) The state's attorney's office opposed his parole each time it came up (then again, that's their job).

When he petitioned Governor Huckabee for a commutation he admitted that he had some initial adjustment problems (he didn't mention what they were, but I could make an educated guess) but added that since his mother died he was determined to turn his life around. He denied any history of alcohol or drug abuse or any history of psychiatric illness or treatment. According the Examiner.com web site, he never required mental health care during the eleven years in prison. When he got out and moved to Washington he was able to run his own landscaping business and get married. A pretty good start, even without therapy.

Prior to killing the police, Clemmons exhibited unusual behavior: claiming to be Jesus, to be able to fly, and forcing his family to undress. To put it modestly, this was a bit of a change for him. He might have been violent and antisocial in the past, but he was never known to be "crazy".

The general public will never know the full story behind the change in his mental state since he was killed by police. Had he survived, he likely would have received a thorough and detailed pretrial psychiatric evaluation for an insanity defense. Only then would we have found out if he really had a psychotic disorder or if he was psychotic due to PCP, Ecstacy or crack cocaine use.

Could any of this have been prevented? I don't know. Maybe, if his sentence hadn't been reduced, both he and the four police officers might be alive today. Then again, maybe he could have been killed (or murdered someone else) in prison. We'll never know.


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a cheery post.

Anonymous said...

It's a great post because it puts some context around a wildly popular story. Thank you. It's so easy just to say, 'evil' and be done with it.

Unknown said...

Here's some more reading. He was recently given two psychological examinations to see if he was competent to stand trial that he was out on bail from. He was found competent both times, but represented "increased risk for future dangerous behavior and for committing future criminal acts."

Anonymous said...

Actually, I have my reservations as to whether he committed the crimes.

So many instances of legal misconduct have appeared lately that I just refuse to swallow anything blindly.

Ignorance, filth, and poverty are the missionaries of crime. As long as dishonorable success outranks honest effort - as long as society bows and cringes before the great thieves, there will be little ones enough to fill the jails. ~Robert Ingersoll, Crimes Against Criminals

Sarebear said...

Good post! Very interesting.

What struck me most was the lack of information (I think?) about the reasoning behind the initial loooong sentence he received as a juvenile.

I think if there'd been more information on that, things would've played different with Huckabee. He probably wouldn'tve touched it with a 20 foot pole, if there'dve been any kind of justifiable reasoning given, even if the second judge had still reduced the length with having more info. Lots of ifs, there.

To me, though, the lack of more info on the reasoning on the initial long sentence is the thing that makes ME go, as the Mythbusters Adam and Jamie might say, "Well, THERE'S your problem."