The Story Mike Huckabee Dreads

by Byron York

With his new success comes new attention to an old Arkansas crime.

In August, I interviewed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee about the case of Wayne Dumond, the convicted rapist who was freed under Huckabee’s administration, only to rape and kill a woman in neighboring Missouri. The crime attracted enormous attention in Arkansas, but at the time of our interview, it had not made its way into much coverage of Huckabee’s presidential bid. “If [Huckabee] continues to rise in the polls,” I wrote, “it’s likely he’ll be talking about it a lot more.”

Now Huckabee is rising in the polls, and sure enough, the Dumond case is attracting more attention. This morning, ABC News ran a report featuring the mother of the woman Dumond murdered, who blames Huckabee for her daughter’s death and vows to do everything she can to stop his campaign. “I can’t imagine anybody wanting somebody like that running the country,” the woman told ABC.

For many people, the report is the first they’ve heard of the Dumond case. Once they learn about it, however, they are unlikely to forget its bizarre details and the strange turn of events that led to Dumond’s final crime. The case is the wild card in Mike Huckabee’s record, the single most controversial event during his time in the Arkansas governor’s office. And it is a potential threat to his now-soaring candidacy.

It began in September 1984, when Dumond, a 35-year-old handyman, kidnapped and raped a 17-year-old high-school cheerleader in the small eastern-Arkansas town of Forrest City. Dumond was allowed to remain free on bond while awaiting trial, and in March 1985 two masked men entered his house, tied him up with fishing line, and castrated him. People were stunned; the case, already notorious, became much more so. And that was before the local sheriff, a rather colorful man named Coolidge Conlee, displayed Dumond’s severed testicles in a jar of formaldehyde on his desk in the St. Francis County building. Amid tons of publicity, Dumond was found guilty and sentenced to life plus 20 years.

The case took on a political coloring when it became known that the victim was a distant cousin of Bill Clinton. After conviction, Dumond, who claimed he was innocent, asked Clinton for clemency. Clinton declined.

Dumond also argued that even if he were guilty his sentence was excessive, and his position won him some sympathy, not least on the grounds that he had suffered terribly at the hands of those unknown assailants. In April 1992, when Dumond had served just seven years, Lt. Gov. Tucker, acting as governor while Clinton was out of state campaigning for president, commuted Dumond’s sentence to a level where he would be eligible for parole. That didn’t mean Dumond would go free, only that the state parole board would consider the question. The board declined to free Dumond.

That’s where things stood when Huckabee took office on July 15, 1996. Last August, Huckabee told me he had his doubts about Dumond’s guilt, and also felt sorry for him over the castration attack. On September 20, just weeks after taking office, Huckabee announced that he intended to set Dumond free, saying that there were “serious questions as to the legitimacy of his guilt.” On October 31, Huckabee met with the parole board. Not long after, the board voted to free Dumond, but on the condition he move to another state. Huckabee was pleased, in part because — given that the board had voted to free Dumond — there was no need for Huckabee to commute the sentence or pardon him. So Huckabee denied Dumond’s now-irrelevant pardon application while at the same time congratulating him on his soon-to-come freedom. “Dear Wayne,” Huckabee wrote in a letter to Dumond. “My desire is that you be released from prison. I feel that parole is the best way for your reintroduction to society to take place.”

But no state would take Dumond. He remained behind bars for two and a half more years, until the board voted to free him in Arkansas. He was released in October 1999 and returned home. The next year, Dumond left the state, moving to a small town near Kansas City, Mo. Within weeks of arriving, he sexually assaulted and murdered a 39-year-old woman at an apartment complex near his home. The day that happened, everyone knew that freeing Wayne Dumond had been a very, very bad idea.

A political storm erupted. Huckabee sought cover by saying that all he had done was to deny Dumond’s pardon application. But some Democrats claimed that Huckabee had pressured the parole board to free Dumond. What actually happened between Huckabee and the board remains unclear to this day, but there is no doubt that Huckabee wanted Wayne Dumond set free. And today, he knows he was terribly wrong, but he still defends his actions. “My only official action was to deny his clemency,” Huckabee told me in Iowa. As we talked, Huckabee spread the blame around, not only to Tucker, who originally commuted Dumond’s sentence, but to Bill Clinton as well. “Tucker could not have done that without Clinton’s full knowledge and approval,” Huckabee said.

I asked about the “Dear Wayne” letter. Didn’t Huckabee want Dumond to go free? “I thought he would, you know, be clean,” Huckabee told me. “And he had a job, he had sponsors lined up, so at the time, I did not have this apprehension that something horrible like that would happen. I did want him to report in [to parole authorities], because I just didn’t know — you never know about a guy like that.”

As he talked, Huckabee looked down. “I hate it like crazy,” he said. “It’s one of the most horrible things ever that he went off and did what he did. It’s just terrible. There’s nothing you can say, but my gosh, it’s the thing you pray never happens. And it did.”

The Dumond case followed Huckabee around for the rest of his time in the governor’s office. In his 2002 reelection bid, his Democratic opponent based virtually her entire campaign on the issue. And beyond the narrow issue of Dumond, Huckabee’s actions raise larger questions about his views on crime and punishment. Critics, and some friends, too, have said Huckabee’s position was deeply influenced by his Christian faith. “When I first met him, I was going through his positions on issues and I said, ‘You’re a conservative, so I’m sure you oppose granting parole for violent felons,’“ Dick Morris, the campaign consultant who ran Huckabee’s first run for lieutenant governor, told me. “And he said, ‘Oh no, I would never take that position, because the concept of Christian duty requires that there is a possibility of forgiveness. The concept of Christian forgiveness requires that we keep open the process of parole — use it sparingly, but keep it open.’“

When I asked Huckabee about that, he reminded me that he was tough on a lot of criminals, too. “Heck, I executed more people than any governor in the history of the state,” Huckabee told me. “It’s not something I’m bragging about, I’m just saying that if it had been simply a matter of my Christian conscience saying I don’t believe in capital punishment, then I was pretty lousy in my conscience.”

Huckabee doesn’t duck talking about Dumond or the larger clemency issue. But he doesn’t enjoy it, either, given that it was unquestionably the worst thing that happened while he was governor. Now, with the press spotlight shining on him, he has no choice but to explain himself.