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The Massachusetts parole board heard several hours of emotional testimony Tuesday, both from a man seeking to commute his life in prison sentence and the family members of the man he killed to get that sentence.
It marks the first commutation hearing since Gov. Charlie Baker took office in 2015. The board reviewed the commutation petition for Thomas Koonce, who has been in prison since 1992 for fatally shooting Mark Santos.
"His life was abruptly cut short and I am responsible and for that, I am sorry," Koonce said, often becoming emotional. "To the Santos family — I fired the fatal shot that killed your son and for that, I am truly sorry."
In 1987, when Koonce was 20, he was on a two-week leave from the Marines Corps and visiting his home in Brockton. While out with friends, Koonce said they came across an angry mob beating people and smashing cars with bats. He said he fired a single shot from his legally-held gun to scare off the crowd, and that shot hit Santos in the chest.
"When I fired that shot, it was a warning shot," Koonce said. "I don't know how it made its way into his heart."
Although he initially claimed he acted in self-defense and therefore should not face first-degree murder charges, Koonce told the board he has done rigorous self-development work and realizes that his actions were the problem.
"I was arrogant and was seeking admiration from my peers," Koonce told the board.
It was shortly after the shooting that Koonce said he learned Santos had been killed. Koonce's friend was then charged with the murder, so Koonce went to the police.
"I just felt obligated to turn myself in and at least admit to the fact that I fired my gun out there," he said.
Koonce was out on bail for five years and left the military with an honorable discharge. His first trial ended in a mistrial, but he was convicted of first-degree murder at his second trial in 1992. His son was one month old at the time.
Board members questioned Koonce for more than four hours; much of it focused on whether he took full responsibility for the crime. Board Chair Gloriann Moroney asked several times if Koonce considered what the Santos family was going through. She asked how Koonce thought Santos' mother would feel reading some of Koonce's writing about the crime, especially a 1998 letter he wrote to the Santos family where he said he was in pain as well.
"I wanted them to know my sentiments," Koonce said.
"If they received it," Moroney said, "how do you think they would have received hearing, 'I'm sorry, but I can't take responsibility for first-degree murder. I'm sorry that one shot found its way into Mark's heart.'? Those are tough, tough words. How do you think — 11 years after Mark got taken from them — that they would have received those words?"
"That was my ignorance back in 1998," Koonce said. "I hadn't done the program. I hadn't done the necessary work on self. It could have been construed as offensive to them. I probably would have done things a lot differently knowing what I know now."
Board member Tonomey Coleman asked if Koonce thought the first mistrial, his lack of criminal record and that he didn't intend to kill would allow him to escape jail time — and if that was why he rejected a deal to plead guilty to manslaughter charges.
"Why didn't you take manslaughter," Coleman asked, "if you accept responsibility for shooting someone, even if you didn't intend it?"
"I agree," Koonce answered. "In some sense, I wish I would have done that way back when, and I wouldn't be sitting before you today, if I had taken responsibility at that point."
The hearing also focused on the 28 years Koonce has spent in prison. Four people who worked with him in various prison programs testified on his behalf. While incarcerated, Koonce earned a degree from Boston University, participated in dozens of self-improvement programs and helped start a restorative justice program. He also wrote a letter of apology to the Santos family.
But the victim's mother, Virginia Santos, was among four family members who testified in opposition. She said her son wanted to be a police officer and a had promising life that was cut short by Koonce's recklessness.
"If you take a life, you give a life," Virginia Santos said. "You will never know my pain unless your son is taken from you under the same circumstances."
Michelle Santos, the victim's sister, said her family is still grieving and urged the board not to approve commutation.
"Our life sentence can never ever be commuted and neither should Mr. Koonce's life sentence," she said.
Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn acknowledged the effects on the Santos family. His office supported Koonce's 2010 commutation petition, saying that first-degree murder charges were not warranted because Koonce did not intend to kill Santos. The board rejected the 2010 request, saying Koonce's rehabilitation efforts in prison were focused on helping others and he did not address the underlying causes of his criminal conduct. Quinn said he supports the new commutation petition.
"After weighing the totality of the circumstances, his background, military service -- despite the terrible thing that he did — I think his case would warrant serious consideration for commutation," Quinn said.
The board will keep the case open for two weeks for more input and then make a recommendation to the governor. If Baker approves, it goes to the Governor's Council. If it signs off, Koonce's charges would be reduced to second-degree murder, and he would be eligible for parole.
This first Baker administration clemency hearing follows the state Supreme Judicial Court this spring urging the governor to use his clemency powers to reduce the number of people incarcerated during the coronavirus pandemic. There are more than 300 other clemency requests pending.
This segment aired on October 28, 2020.
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