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Man Imprisoned For 28 Years For Murder Granted State's First Commutation Hearing In 6 Years

A Brockton man convicted of first-degree murder in a 1987 shooting in New Bedford will have the state's first commutation hearing in six years.

The hearing for Thomas Koonce, who has been imprisoned for 28 years, was granted but not yet scheduled, according to a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

The commutation hearing was first reported by The Boston Globe on Monday.

Only one prisoner has had their sentence commuted in the last 24 years — in 2014, as then-Gov. Deval Patrick was leaving office. Gov. Charlie Baker hasn't used his executive powers to commute a sentence or pardon a prisoner in the five years he's been in office.

There are more than 300 requests to the state for clemency. Of those, 200 are seeking pardon — a forgiveness of the offense. And 100 others are seeking commutations, or a reduction in the prison sentence.

Baker issued revised guidelines for executive clemency in February, which allow petitioners to submit new information to their requests.

The state Supreme Judicial Court has urged Baker to use his powers to release prisoners because of the coronavirus pandemic. And members of the Governor's Council, the board that would have the final say on any pardon or commutation, have also called for more clemency hearings and petitions.

Governor's Council member Terrence Kennedy told WBUR on Monday that he has been begging for more pardon and commutation petitions to come to the council.

"I cannot believe that only one person in the last 24 years was deserving of a commutation," Kennedy said. "There were so many people that have earned at least a meaningful chance at a commutation of that prison sentence, or a pardon."

Koonce has been in prison since 1992, when he was convicted of first-degree murder. His first trial ended in a mistrial.

The fatal shooting happened five years earlier, in July 1987. Koonce and three friends went to a nightclub in Westport and then a Burger King in Dartmouth that night. In both locations, fights broke out between groups from New Bedford and Brockton, but Koonce and his friends remained uninvolved.

It was only when they arrived at an apartment complex in New Bedford that Koonce and his group clashed with a group from New Bedford. Koonce and his friends were chased back to their car. They were blocked in by another vehicle, and Koonce fired a shot that killed another man.

Koonce later went to the police to report he fired the shot. At his trial, he claimed self-defense.

A spokesperson for the Bristol County district attorney's office said the office is carefully reviewing the case and the petition, and wouldn't say whether it plans to oppose it.

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Ally is a reporter who champions data and public records in the WBUR newsroom.

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