Monday, May 17, 2010

Day 137- Graham v. Florida

Dear Mr. President,

In an earlier letter, I spoke about the immorality of continuing to keep Omar Khadr in Guantanamo Bay for a crime he allegedly committed as a 15-year old boy. Today's Supreme Court decision, which rightly identifies the sentencing of minors to life without parole for crimes other than murder, again brought this case to my mind. But it also recalled another case, one which this week is fresh in my mind since you spoke at the memorial for fallen police officers. Maurice Clemmons, who murdered 4 police officers in Washington state, committed his first crime at 16. When governor Huckabee commuted his 108-year sentence to make him eligible for parole in 1999 (instead of 2015) he did so largely because of Clemmons's age at the time of his crimes. This case is a test of my convictions about juvenile sentencing. The visceral, personal, emotional reaction I have to the murder of police officers does not change the fact that, had I been Governor Huckabee, I would likely have made the same decision. I, too, would want to believe that the man had changed and grown and come to see the error of his ways. I, too, would have wanted to show mercy for mistakes made as a child.

What makes this case so frustrating is that, of course, Maurice Clemmons did not walk out of jail in 1999 and then live as an upstanding member of society until 2009; before murdering 4 officers he raped two children, assaulted two other officers, committed robbery, and was assessed by medical professionals to be highly dangerous and likely to re-offend. There were many points between the Governor commuting the sentence and the day those officers died when the system should have intervened to stop this terrible man. I do not think that giving him a second chance was a mistake, even if the series of additional chances following may have been. Can any one even say for certain that, at 16, Maurice Clemmons was already destined for this? I don't believe we can.

Still, his original sentences would have left him in an Arkansas prison until 2015; parole was not out of the question, even after a series of criminal acts. Those prisoners put away for life without parole who may eventually be released because of today's Supreme Court decision may have another Maurice Clemmons among them. We cannot pretend to know for certain what a person's future actions will be, but I think it is better to give a person a chance to change, so long as the safeguards built in to the system are implemented correctly.

The Supreme court acted in accordance with the spirit of the law, and the conscience of our country. I only hope that the wisdom behind their decision can be extrapolated to apply to Omar Khadr during his trial. I don't know if he will leave Guantanamo hating America even more, ready to return to the fight or to kill innocents. I don't know any of this, and neither do you and neither does any military tribunal. It is the fear we have to live with, if we are to adhere to our nation's moral code, to uphold the values of justice and fairness that we stand for. There is simply no number of prison cells that will ever make us safe.

Respectfully yours,


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