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Seattle cop-killer case – the exception, not the rule

Investigators must look at how suspect Maurice Clemmons slipped through the cracks. But they must be careful not to draw broad conclusions.

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The case of the ambush and killing of four police officers in a coffee shop near Seattle on Sunday is exceptionally troubling – emphasis on exceptionally.

Four police officers shot, execution-style. Their families struggle to recover as they mourn. The suspect, Maurice Clemmons – released from jail just days before the ambush, despite a long history of violent crime and known mental problems. After a massive manhunt, he's dead, too, shot early Tuesday by a policeman investigating a stolen car.

The extraordinary nature of this crime is why it's captured the nation's attention. But it's also a reason for caution. High-profile crimes have a tendency to rank emotion over reason when it comes to the criminal justice system.

Remember, for instance, the wrenching story of young Polly Klaas, kidnapped from a slumber party in her California home in 1993 and then murdered. The case served as a catalyst for the state's "three strikes" law, the nation's toughest law for repeat offenders.

The law has netted violent offenders, but also nonviolent ones, and it has helped swell the state's prison population. In August, with California prisons at nearly twice their capacity, a panel of judges ordered the state to significantly reduce the number of inmates.

In the Clemmons case, the public and law enforcement have voiced outrage that he was granted clemency in 2000 by Mike Huckabee, the former Republican presidential candidate who at that time was governor of Arkansas.

Mr. Huckabee cited Clemmons's age – he was 16 when he began a crime spree that included burglaries and robberies and that resulted in a total sentence of more than 100 years. The parole board also unanimously supported clemency for Mr. Clemmons, who had served 11 years.

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