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Mass. hasn't commuted a prisoner sentence since 2014. That could change this week

This article is more than 1 year old.

Gov. Baker is considering commuting the life sentences of two Massachusetts men, in what would be a first since he took office in 2015.

Baker is considering recommendations from the state's Advisory Board of Pardons to commute the sentences of Thomas Koonce and William Allen. He's expected to act this week on the commutation petition of Koonce, which would meet guidelines he set in 2020 that give the governor has one year to make a decision after a petition is approved by the board.

"We wouldn't have updated our guidance and our criteria if we didn't want to give people an opportunity to pursue it," Baker said when asked about the commutations during a press briefing Monday " We've had several conversations about the recommendations that currently are before us and we recognize and understand that there's a deadline coming and we need to make a decision."

Koonce has served almost three decades in prison for the 1987 killing of 24-year-old Mark Santos of New Bedford. Koonce, who was 20 years old at the time, was home on leave from the Marines when he fatally shot Santos while fleeing an angry crowd. During his hearing, Koonce said he fired a warning shot that accidentally hit Santos. He had rejected a deal to plead guilty to manslaughter charges and serve 5-10 years in prison. Instead Koonce received a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.

In September, the Board recommended commuting the life in prison sentence for William Allen. He has been in prison for nearly 30 years for participating in a fatal armed robbery in Brockton in 1994. Even though another man involved fatally stabbed Purvis Bester, Allen was convicted of first-degree murder because a jury found he participated in a felony that resulted in a death.

Allen rejected a deal where he could have pleaded guilty to second degree murder and received a life sentence with the possibility of parole. The man who killed Bester agreed to the deal and has been out on parole for more than a decade.

Several prominent members of the state's legal community have written to Baker urging him to use his clemency powers and approve both petitions. The letter, sent Friday, says both Koonce and Allen have met all the requirements for clemency by participating in several DOC programs, learning skills that will help them once released and taking steps to enrich the lives of others. The letter says by commuting their sentences, the governor would be taking steps to address racial disparities in the criminal legal system.

"Both Mr. Koonce and Mr. Allen, for almost three decades, have led remarkable lives
driven by kindness, generosity, charity, productivity, and atonement," the letter reads
"By commuting the sentences of Mr. Koonce and Mr. Allen, you have the unprecedented opportunity to recognize exceptional work done by both men and to send a message of hope to all prisoners, of all races."

The letter was signed by four retired state Supreme Court justices: Margot Botsford, Fernande R.V. Duffly, Geraldine Hines and Robert Cordy, who currently represents Allen. Another signatory is Rachael Rollins, the former Suffolk County District Attorney who was sworn in as Massachusetts US Attorney on Monday.

If Baker does agree to commute the sentences, the Governor's Council would review his recommendation and decide whether to approve it. Depending on the recommendation, the Parole Board would then determine conditions of release.

Governor's Councilor attorney Terrence Kennedy said he has met with both Koonce and Allen to discuss their petitions and he thinks their sentences should be commuted. Kennedy says both men would likely be out of prison if they had accepted a deal with prosecutors, so he feels Koonce and Allen are being punished for taking their cases to trial.

"If we're going to have commutations at all as part of our criminal justice system, it's meaningless unless it's used," Kennedy said. "And I can not think of two more worthy people who would warrant commutation."

The last time a sentence was commuted in Massachusetts was in 2014 by former Gov. Deval Patrick. That was the first commutation in the state in 17 years.


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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