It was 1979. AutoTrader.com and eBay weren't around just yet so the Reverend did what a lot of people did back then: he parked his car in a vacant lot in Little Rock, Ark. and put a sign in the window listing his phone number.
A few weeks later his phone rang--a man was interested in buying the car. He asked Rev. Bennett if he could take it for a test drive and the two men agreed to meet at the lot that evening.
Hours later, on the other side of town, a man was walking his dog in an undeveloped subdivision when he saw something unusual: A person lying in the street with his shirt pulled up over his face. He was dead from a gunshot to the head.
A short time later the man was identified at the morgue by his 20 year old son-in-law. It was Rev. Billy Bennett.
Unlike a "48 Hours Mystery" I won't keep you in suspense as to who did it: the killer was a guy named James Maxwell. There wasn't much question as to whether Maxwell had shot and killed the Reverend, he admitted to it. He then accepted a plea bargain with the prosecutor that would spare him the death penalty in exchange for life in prison plus 5 years. Rev. Bennett's family, not wanting to put themselves through a heart-wrenching trial, and satisfied that Maxwell would never again see the light of day, supported the deal.
But, to the shock of everyone, especially the victim's family, James Maxwell is back on the streets, a free man. He spent just 24 years behind bars. 24 years for a premeditated, cold-blooded murder that, without question, he had committed against a man who was not only a husband and father, but also the top Arkansas official of the Church of God.
Who can you blame for this ridiculous miscarriage of justice? An overzealous judge? A terrible bureaucracy? A lack of prison funding? Nope, the villain is actually someone that all of us have seen or heard feigning outrage over being called a "progressive": Governor Mike Huckabee.
Huckabee has taken shots for being "soft on crime" for a while now, but it's stories like these that really make you scratch your head and wonder what kind of man--let alone leader--he really is. On October 30, 2000--Halloween's eve--Huckabee granted Maxwell clemency, thereby making him eligible for parole in just over two years (the parole board granted Maxwell parole in 2003). This grant was made by Huckabee despite clemency being denied to Maxwell by other governors and, of course, strongly protest by the Reverend's family and the prosecutor who agreed to Maxwell's plea deal.
Maxwell, it turns out, had been working at the Governor's mansion. But while that put him in a position to make an appeal to the governor, he was clearly not alone. During his terms in office, Huckabee pardoned or commuted the sentences of at 1,033 prisoners, including at least 11 convicted murderers. To put that into context, that was double the number of the previous three governors combined.
And if you think that Huckabee is simply a man who can see real redemption in others and act accordingly, without regard to the political naysayers, think again. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:
"Interviews and the previously undisclosed documents obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette suggest that inmates' chances of getting clemency from Huckabee improve if: The justice system treated them more harshly than most. They know a person who has known the governor. They worked at the Governor's Mansion. A minister intercedes for them."
And if you need more evidence that these clemencies aren't based on much more than how the Governor felt on a particular day, consider this, also from the Gazette in 2004:
"On July 6, Huckabee, without explanation, said he planned to grant clemency to Dennis Lewis and Glen Martin Green. Lewis had fatally shot a pawnshop owner in Springdale during a robbery in 1974. In the same year, Green beat an 18-year-old pregnant woman with martial-arts fighting sticks and ran over her head with his car before dumping her body into Lonoke County."
The problem? Just three weeks later, Huckabee changed his mind saying he didn't want to spend all of his time focusing on this issue and dealing with the whole "hullabaloo" it had caused. Unwavering principles...that's what we like to see in our leaders.
When granting clemency to Maxwell, Huckabee said that "The lines between justice and mercy are often inches apart." He's exactly right, but the lines between leader and fraud are just as close.