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Life Just Got a Lot Harder for Arkansas Inmates

The most obvious tragedy of the Washington police shootings is the deaths of the four police officers. The fact that the suspected gunman is a convicted felon from Arkansas whose 95-year prison sentence was commuted by then-Governor Mike Huckabee in 2000 is a tragedy for anyone currently in prison in Arkansas who might hope to one day receive executive clemency. Just consider what happened in Massachusetts after Willie Horton.

As Michael Blanding wrote in the Boston Globe Magazine a few months back:

In Massachusetts, however, there hasn’t been a single commutation approved by a governor since 1997 -- and there were only seven in the previous 10 years (four for murderers). Over the past 22 years, more than 650 petitions have been denied. In that same period, Delaware has approved hundreds, 12 for convicted murderers. Michigan’s Democratic governor has approved 23 in the past five years; in the prior 12 years, her Republican predecessor approved 34. And from 2003 to 2007, Maryland’s Republican governor granted 15 commutations, including five for life sentences for murder.

It’s no secret why Massachusetts has lagged behind: the memory of Willie Horton, the convicted murderer who terrorized a couple, raping the woman, in 1987 after escaping while on a weekend furlough allowed by then governor Michael Dukakis. The act pretty much torpedoed Dukakis’s presidential campaign a year later when ads showing Horton’s picture and images of inmates going through a revolving door hit the airwaves. Even years later, it lays bare the thorny political calculus of letting a felon out of jail. There is almost nothing for a governor to gain and everything for him to lose should the criminal commit another crime. “Ever since what Willie Horton did to Mike Dukakis, governors are going to think not twice but 10 times before they ever commute anyone,” says retired judge Robert Barton, who presided over the Donovan case. Tufts University political science professor Jeffrey Berry agrees. “If I was a governor’s adviser,” he says, “I would recommend he be very cautious.”

Just last week, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe granted 10 pardons. If Massachusetts is any guide, it might be a while until he grants another one.