Written with Jonathan Martin and the Staff of the Seattle Times
For its coverage of a gunman's attack on four police officers inside a coffee shop, the Seattle Times won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting. Now the newspaper goes deeper, drawing upon a stunning trove of documents and audio recordings to reconstruct a killer’s winding path and a presidential aspirant’s possible downfall. The Other Side of Mercy won the 2011 Tom Renner Award, presented by Investigative Reporters and Editors; the judges called it a "darkly fascinating tale ... as riveting as any crime novel."
The Trouble I’ve Seen***
You have a VAC collect call from ... Maurice ... an inmate at the Pierce County Jail. This call will be recorded and monitored. To accept this call, press 5 now.
Nicole would hear those words -- a woman’s voice, recorded -- and she would press 5, and she and Maurice would have twenty minutes to talk, Maurice on the inside, Nicole on the outside, their marriage reduced to telephone calls that came with unbending deadlines and which cost $2.67 apiece, a profit center for the jailers and a financial suck for the inmates, forever scrounging another ten, twenty-five or fifty dollars to put on their books and to keep their lines to the outside world open. When he was worked up, when his brain was on fire, Maurice Clemmons would make as many as seventeen calls a day, careening from Nicole to the Reverend Reggie to his buddy Boo Man to his lawyer in Arkansas, a lawyer Clemmons couldn’t praise enough, calling him "a good dude," "a righteous guy," "a heavyweight." "That’s one white man there that we can trust," Clemmons would say, and for Clemmons that was saying something.
Most calls went to Nicole. Twenty minutes doesn’t sound like much time, but for Maurice and Nicole it seemed plenty. By the fall of 2009 he’d been in jail long enough to drain any sense of urgency from these calls, the two having said whatever needed saying. There were days when they could be mistaken for two people reading magazines, murmuring, sighing, lost in their heads, instead of two people holding a conversation. There were days when their exchanges sounded like a replay of the day before. He’d ask her to look up the Powerball numbers, and she’d say, "12, 24, 48, 50, 57, 22," and he’d say, "Well, not us," and she’d say, "Nope." The numbers were never them. But every day he’d ask, and every day she’d say nope. There were days he’d get on the phone and hum and hum and hum. She’d brush her teeth. Or eat chips. Or sit on the pot and piss.
"All right?" she asked him on October 19.
"Um hmm. I just get this over with and do what I gotta do."
Add his recent jail stints up -- he’d been arrested in May, and again in July, and again in August -- and he’d been in the county lockup for three months now. But Maurice Clemmons knew how to do time. That’s what he told his wife and anyone else who’d listen. He knew how to do time. This was nothing -- this was "a picnic," this was "a light scrimmage" -- compared to the time he’d served before.
Clemmons began to sing. "Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen ..."
His voice traversed the middle registers—nothing as deep as Louis Armstrong’s, not a bass that scooped up gravel -- and he remained faithful to the spiritual’s lyrics, until the final word.
"... nobody knows but me."
Jesus became me. Stretching the word out, Clemmons took the note higher, not lower. Seconds passed, filled with silence. One second became five became ten became eighteen.
Clemmons was thirty-seven years old. To him, the Pierce County Jail held nothing to fear. It was crowded, yes. They’re all crowded. The jail -- in the port city of Tacoma, thirty minutes from Seattle, sixty miles from Mount Rainier, hard on the Puget Sound -- housed fourteen hundred inmates, so many inmates and so few guards that some guards worked unbelievable OT and an inmate might wait ten days to have a dentist look at a cracked molar and exposed root. For Clemmons, this mass of inmates was not an issue. The jail had squirreled him away in the hole, leaving him with no company but his thoughts for twenty-three hours a day. The hole. When Clemmons said the words, they came out flat, a trifle. What was the hole compared to Cummins, the Arkansas prison farm where Clemmons had seen his youth go to dust, where he’d spent year after year swinging a hoe? People wrote songs about Cummins. They made movies about Cummins.
He started to sing again. "This going down. Down ... down ... down."
"Yeah, man," he said.
"Never should have been let out of the penitentiary," he said.
When Clemmons talked like this -- never should have been let out" -- a threat lurked behind his words. But there were other days when he abandoned all allusion.
"There gonna be bullets and gunsmoke," he’d tell Nicole. Or he’d tell his half brother: "Woe to the one that sees me first."
The jail staff recorded these conversations. But Clemmons -- a man awaiting trial on eight felony charges, a man for whom caution would have seemed a more obvious choice -- could not have cared less. He talked bold and sometimes taunted, throwing vulgar insults at whoever might be listening.
You have sixty seconds remaining. It was the woman’s voice again, recorded.
"Yup, yup, yup, yup. All right, baby," Clemmons told his wife. "It don’t mean a thing. Bye."
So often, this is what happens. Someone does something shocking, and people want to know: What was he thinking? What was Timothy McVeigh thinking? What were those kids at Columbine thinking? What about that student who killed thirty-two people at Virginia Tech?
In the fall of 2009, Maurice Clemmons planned to do something shocking. And he left no doubt what he was thinking. In the weeks and months before he hoped to execute his plan -- "I’ve always been a man of action," he said -- Clemmons left one of the most detailed manifestos possible, produced not on paper but in one-hundred-plus hours of telephone calls placed from the Pierce County Jail.
The record he left was contemporaneous. The record he left was candid. It was not embroidery after the fact; he wasn’t rationalizing to a reporter or a psychiatrist or a sentencing judge. Clemmons told the people close to him what he planned to do. And he told them why. "Sometimes it burns me in my chest, man, I have so much hatred toward the police ... The strategy is gonna go, kill as many of them devils as I can, until I can’t kill no more ... A dude ain’t no man if you don’t make no stand ... I ain’t no more catch the cuffs ... I’m going to war ... Maurice against the world."
Maurice against the world. That’s how he saw it. That’s how he always saw it. And if his story was nothing more than that -- a story of delusion and self-pity -- then maybe a long telling would serve minimal purpose. But Clemmons left behind more than all of those telephone recordings. He left behind a document trail stunning in its detail and a life’s history that merged exodus with odyssey. He exposed myths that surround the challenges of posting bail. He exposed fault lines in how states deal with one another in handling violent felons. He illustrated the allure and attendant dangers of easy money, the only kind there seemed to be in the years before this recession. A suggestible man who forever seemed to be both predator and prey, Clemmons believed in prophets named Ralph and Yasmin and Crystal. He believed Donald Trump could make him rich. He believed he could game the Bank of America, play it like a slot machine. Clemmons also renewed our nation’s fevered debate about the merits of mercy -- and, in the process, may have doomed the presidential aspirations of Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who, in the fall of 2009, while Clemmons was making all those calls from a county jail, had emerged as a Republican front-runner in the next race for the White House.
Clemmons planned to hunt down and assassinate police officers. He wanted to kill as many as possible -- "until I can’t kill no more." In the United States, the premeditated killing of law-enforcement officers is a rare crime, one with remarkable power to unnerve. But in October of 2009, in the country’s northwest corner, Clemmons wasn’t the only person plotting to target police. Another man -- one who had left so shallow an imprint on this world that a police investigator would later call him a "ghost" -- was nursing grievances rooted in the academic study of racial disparities and news reports of police abuse. The ways in which Clemmons and this second man pursued their sense of injustice rocked a community and reverberated nationally. The politics of crime kicked in, sweeping up everyone from judges in Tacoma to state lawmakers in Olympia to prosecutors in Little Rock to candidates for president of the United States. Like shards of metal blasting from a pipe bomb, blame flew every which way. Governors sparred. Bureaucrats scrambled. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly called names.
The events that rattled the Puget Sound showed how ripples can extend beyond state lines and across the decades. They exposed lingering resentments borne of our country’s racial divide, and building resentments generated by our prison population, which grows so fast we’ve been dubbed Incarceration Nation. But at the same time, the eruption of violence managed to remind us of the bond between community and police. By enforcing our laws, police become our surrogate. When madness or resentment or obsession turns to violence, police can become the target. It isn’t right. It isn’t fair. But police officers know, their spouses know, their parents and friends and brothers and sisters know, that pinning on a shield doesn’t make you safe. More often it places you in danger.