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."
But prosecutors in Arkansas say their real concern was with the pardons and commutations Huckabee granted to violent offenders, especially the approximately one dozen murderers. An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette review in 2004 concluded that state records indicate "at least 9 percent of the prisoners who benefited from Huckabee's clemencies ended up in prison again."
In recent days media attention has focused on the case of Wayne DuMond, a rapist whom the Arkansas Parole Board paroled after Huckabee advocated on his behalf. DuMond went on to rape and kill at least one other woman.
Paroles, in reality, are decisions made entirely by the parole board, and Huckabee has said the decision was not his to make, which is factually correct, though some members of the board have reportedly suggested Huckabee influenced their decision greatly.
The governor of Arkansas makes the ultimate decision, however, when it comes to clemency — shortening the time a prisoner serves — and pardons. When he commuted a prisoner's sentence from life without chance of parole to something less, he made them eligible to be freed by the parole board. And it was with these powers that Huckabee was rather, well, forgiving.
This particularly seemed to be the case with prisoners who worked in the governor's mansion, such as Willie Way Jr.
Way had pleaded guilty to both the July 1973 first-degree murder of James Carter, who owned a grocery store, and the involuntary manslaughter death of Reginald Mack, 14, shot and killed in Way's home. Huckabee commuted Way's sentence in May 2001, making him eligible for parole, and after he was freed he worked at the governor's mansion.
In one instance, a Huckabee commutation was overturned by a lawsuit that found a technical error in the clemency process. In 2004, Huckabee attempted to grant clemency to Don Jeffers, who in 1980 pleaded guilty to bludgeoning to death William Hash. After Saline County Prosecuting Attorney Robert Herzfeld asked the governor to explain why he would commute Jeffers' life sentence, Huckabee's aide Cory Cox wrote a letter to Herzfeld saying "the governor read your letter and laughed out loud."
It was around that time that Huckabee, under fire for his clemency policy, announced that from then on there would be three reasons for his granting clemency: "remarkable signs of rehabilitation," "substantial and compelling evidence" showing "an injustice committed at trial" and "a terminal or substantially debilitating medical condition." But the governor also reserved the right to bestow forgiveness for "other reasons."
After this new policy, Huckabee commuted the sentence of Stewart, despite what Jegley says were the prisoner's myriad disciplinary marks while in prison, and his refusal to accept any responsibility in Papadopolis' death, though he acknowledged his intent to rob him. Stewart had claimed Papadopolis, a drug dealer, had poisoned himself, though the cause of his death was ruled gunshot wounds. It was unclear how Stewart qualified for clemency under Huckabee's new policy.
"I used to be able to tell the families of victims, in all good faith and candor, that it was a rare event when a governor commuted a sentence and let a murderer back out, or a rapist back out or a child molester back out. But I can't do that anymore," Jegley said.
Jegley says he would get "calls from victim's families and jurors. They were just furious. They felt he had totally disrespected the system."
McCastlain shares many of those sentiments, albeit more politely, but she also had more success in her dealings with Huckabee. In 2004 McCastlain heard that Huckabee was considering commuting the sentence of former Air Force Sgt. Glen Green, who in 1974 confessed to kidnapping Helen Lynette Spencer at the Little Rock Air Force base, beating her with nunchucks, raping her in a secluded area, running over her with his car, stuffing her body into his trunk and dumping her body in a bayou. A witness tied him with the horrific crime and Green confessed.
The Rev. Johnny Jackson, a pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Jacksonville, began advocating for Green's release, and when McCastlain heard she began to worry, given Huckabee's forgiving nature. "I was concerned," she said. "I could foresee that commutation might happen because it had happened before."
She prepared documentation to keep the brutal killer in prison. "The governor came from a religious background, so I tried to appeal to him in the way that I thought he looked at clemency," she said. She attacked the sincerity of Green's repentance.
It worked. Huckabee did not commute Green's sentence; he remains in prison.
"As a prosecutor," she said, Huckabee's plethora of pardons and commutations "was a concern for me. I respect a jury and a jury's findings and what they say is what I believe the sentence should be."