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Massachusetts Parole Board Approves First Commutation Under Baker Administration

In its first decision on a commutation petition in almost seven years, the Massachusetts Parole Board recommended commuting the life in prison sentence of Thomas Koonce. The decision was unanimous.

The board cited Koonce's commitment to self improvement and self development while he was incarcerated and the level of support expressed in letters and during his commutation hearing in October.

The parole board said that Koonce has been incarcerated for 28 years for "a single act of violence." In support of its decision, the board cited the numerous programs Koonce has been involved with in prison, including getting his college degree.

"The Advisory Board of Pardons recommends the commutation of Mr. Koonce's first degree murder conviction to second degree murder based on his extraordinary commitment to self development and self improvement," the board's decision reads.

Koonce has been incarcerated since 1992 for the fatal shooting of Mark Santos. During his commutation petition hearing, Koonce admitted to firing a shot from his legally held gun into an angry mob that was beating people and smashing car windows with bats. Koonce said he intended to fire a "warning shot." It hit Santos in the chest.

Shortly after the shooting, Koonce learned that Santos was killed and Koonce's friend was charged with the murder. So Koonce went to the police. The parole board's commutation recommendation points out that Koonce was out on bail for five years before he was convicted and was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marines.

"Pending his conviction, Mr. Koonce was released on bail in the community for approximately five years without incident," the board's decision reads. "In addition, he has maintained exemplary conduct during his commitment."

The Santos family opposed commutation. During the October hearing, relatives of Mark Santos urged the board not to recommend commutation.

"If you take a life, you give a life," his mother Virginia Santos said. "You will never know my pain unless your son is taken from you under the same circumstances."

But dozens of community leaders and the Bristol County District Attorney supported Koonce's petition and the board said it met Gov. Baker's Executive Clemency Guidelines issued last year. The petition now goes to the governor and the governor's council. If they agree, Koonce would become eligible for parole.

This is the first commutation hearing since 2014. There are 274 clemency petitions pending.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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