Families of slain Lakewood officers advise lawmakers
Many say that Maurice Clemmons might not have been at large with different laws
SEATTLE — In emotional testimony Monday night, family members of four slain Lakewood police officers asked lawmakers to make changes to a system they say failed their loved ones.
Lakewood police Sgt. Mark Renninger and Officers Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold and Greg Richards were shot to death in November at a coffee shop before the start of their Sunday morning shift. The man accused of killing them, Maurice Clemmons, was fatally shot by a Seattle police officer two days later.
"Our families should not be going through this tragedy," said Owens' sister, Rhonda LeFrancois, who was wearing a yellow shirt that read "Make a Difference!" - a note from her brother that she said she found after his death.
"I beg of you, make a difference, just as our loved ones made a difference each and every day they were here protecting us," LeFrancois told the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee at a special hearing that was scheduled in the weeks after the shootings.
LeFrancois and other family members asked committee members to adopt changes recently suggested by law enforcement groups, including constitutional amendments that would give judges more leeway to deny bail. The panel will hold a public hearing on some of those measures Tuesday morning.
The lawmaker holding the hearing, Democratic Rep. Chris Hurst of Enumclaw, says he wants to know why Clemmons was free despite a criminal history in both Washington and Arkansas.
"All killings of law enforcement officers are horrific and terrible to us," said Hurst, a retired police officer. "The reason we're focusing on the Clemmons case is because I'm starting from one single premise, that Maurice Clemmons should not have been out of custody and had an opportunity to do this."
Hurst said he wanted to give lawmakers a chance to hear from prosecutors, law enforcement representatives and others so they'd have a better understanding of the case while considering legislation.
"This is not a time for us to have a knee-jerk response and simply pass a lot of bills if they won't actually help," Hurst said at the beginning of the three-hour hearing. "The intent is to move pieces of legislation that will actually make a difference."
After the shootings, Gregoire called on law-enforcement groups to compile a list of potential changes to state law, policy or the state constitution. Last week, Gregoire and the officer groups released a list of potential changes, including better communication between law enforcement on jail bookings and releases, a review of the bail bonds system, and enhanced benefits for survivors of officers who die in the line of duty.
Clemmons' 108-year prison sentence for armed robbery and other offenses was commuted by then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2000. Six days before the shooting, he posted bail on child-rape allegations, a charge that could have put him in prison for life under Washington state's "three-strikes" law.
Under the state constitution, bail can be denied only in aggravated murder cases.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said he thought the constitutional amendment was an important step to take, "so that when a judge believes that a defendant is a danger to the community they can say no bail."
Criminal defense attorneys asked the lawmakers to not rush into making that change.
"Our role here is to provide a check to make sure that the legislative reforms we seek in light of this tragedy don't overreach," said Seattle attorney Amy Muth, co-chair of the Washington Defender Association and Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Muth said she wanted to ensure that the "presumption of innocence is guaranteed" while making sure the community is safe.
"We are all members of the criminal justice system and we all want the same goal to ensure justice is served and carried out," she said.
The Lakewood officers were among six officers killed over two months in Pierce and King Counties.
The rash of shootings began in October, when Seattle Officer Timothy Brenton was killed as he sat in his patrol car Halloween night. Christopher Monfort, 41, has been charged with aggravated first-degree murder in Brenton's death.
Last month, Deputy Kent Mundell of Puyallup was shot to death while responding to a domestic disturbance call.