In July, when Little Rock, Ark., prosecutor Larry Jegley heard that Wade Stewart had been arrested for the robbery of a prostitute, with a .38 revolver tucked into his pants, Jegley says he just shrugged his shoulders, shook his head and said, "What the heck?"
Stewart had been serving a life sentence after fatally shooting, in 1973, 25-year-old Nicholas Papadopolis.
But on Dec. 18, 2004, Gov. Mike Huckabee granted Stewart clemency, making him eligible for parole, which he was granted. He was the 12th convicted murderer whom Huckabee had helped free from prison. And when Stewart was freed, Jegley had a feeling he'd be hearing from him sooner or later.
"I have been waiting for a lot of these guys that he cut loose to turn up on the police blotter again and again," said Jegley, the prosecuting attorney for Pulaski County, which includes Little Rock. "I know some of the people that Huckabee let loose have reoffended. Some of them we've caught and some of them we haven't caught."
Jegley is a Democrat, but the concerns Arkansas prosecutors had about Huckabee were hardly partisan. Lonoke County Prosecuting Attorney Lona McCastlain, a Republican, says she likes Huckabee personally and thought he accomplished "some great things, but I disagreed with his policy on this particular issue. I think later governors will probably learn from the mistakes that were made during the Huckabee administration."
McCastlain is referring to the fact that as governor from 1996 through 2007, Huckabee helped free through commutations and pardons more prisoners than had been freed by the previous three governors — Bill Clinton, Frank White and Jim Guy Tucker — combined in an 18-year period.
In fact, an Arkansas Leader study indicated that Huckabee helped free more prisoners from 1996 through 2004 than were freed in the six neighboring states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas — combined.
None of the prosecutors were ever told why Huckabee felt compelled to have a hand in freeing so many prisoners, though all of them speculate that his deeply religious nature led to a strong belief in repentance and forgiveness. In some cases, prosecutors say, evangelical leaders attested that a prisoner had found Jesus and that seemed to influence the governor's thoughts.
Huckabee spokeswoman Alice Stewart (no relation to Wade) told ABC News in a statement that "some Governors are content to simply deny the vast majority of clemency applications without bothering to consider their merit. Gov. Huckabee, however, believed that respect for the legal process required that he give them the consideration for which they were entitled. Even though he denied over 80 percent of the applications, his clemency rate was still higher than governors who do not bother to review each application."
Stewart went on to explain that the governor's high number of pardons and clemencies was because of increased security post-Sept. 11.
"Before the mainstream use of background checks, most people could have some youthful arrest, change their lives and become good, tax-paying citizens without that earlier arrest coming back to haunt them," she said. That changed and "Gov. Huckabee found during his time in office that each year the number of people needing clemency to clear their record increased. Denying their request prevented them from continuing to earn a good living and pay taxes. The majority of the clemency requests he granted were for this reason."