The recommendation was the first time since Baker took office in 2015 that the board, which also serves as the state parole board, has petitioned him for his approval; in September, he sent him a second, recommending that he also commute the life sentence of William Allen, 48, who was convicted of participating in a fatal armed robbery against a drug trafficker. drug known to Brockton in 1994.
Last month, the commission held four more pardon hearings, including one asking for a commutation and three asking for pardons. A commutation reduces an inmate’s sentence, paving the way for immediate release or parole eligibility, while a pardon erases a conviction.
The increase in activity, combined with Baker’s self-imposed deadline to act on petitions, is fueling optimism among legal observers that the state may adopt leniency for the first time in years.
Approval of the petitions would send “a message that Governor Baker is interested and willing to correct decades of systemic racial injustice,” said lawyer Patricia DeJuneas, who represents Allen. “It is about humanity, human dignity and human rights. And it’s about doing the right thing.
Under guidelines issued by Baker in 2020, he has one year to act on a recommendation from the board of directors, which, in Koonce’s case, was made on January 14. If Baker agrees, the petition would go to the eight-person board of governors for final approval. at least two members publicly support the commutation of Koonce’s sentence.
But if Baker chooses not to act at all, Koonce’s request for pardon is dead. He will have to wait a year before he can renew his application, said his lawyer, Timothy C. Foley.
Foley said he met Baker’s legal team in September and again on December 20 and was told the governor was still reviewing Koonce’s petition.
“They tell me it’s a very current problem,” Foley said. “Sir. At this point, Koonce is praying that Governor Baker will accept the advisory council’s recommendation and grant clemency.”
A spokesperson for Baker said the governor is still reviewing “recent recommendations” from the board.
The case is closely watched in justice and criminal justice circles, in part for its timing. Baker said last month he would not seek re-election, which means he is now entering the final year of his two-term mandate – a period often seen as ripe for such politically sensitive decisions.
The only clemency petitions the state has approved in nearly 20 years came in the final months of Gov. Deval Patrick’s second term, when he approved four pardons and the commutation of convicted drug trafficker Deanne Hamilton. 49 years old. Acting Governor Jane Swift approved seven pardons in 2002, also in her final year in office. Between the two, Governor Mitt Romney has not approved any.
The last time a life sentence was commuted in Massachusetts was in 1997, when Gov. William Weld recommended to the Governing Council that the sentence of Joseph Salvati, who spent 30 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
This relative caution dates back decades, fueled in part by what Daniel Medwed, a Northeastern law professor, called the “Willie Horton effect” – the ever-looming shadow created when Horton, a convicted murderer, brought home. raped a woman on a weekend break in 1987. Horton was subsequently the subject of a now infamous political advertisement, helping to sink the 1988 presidential candidacy of then governor Michael Dukakis.
“After Willie Horton, there was this perception that the parole board would be very careful with all release decisions,” Medwed said.
Decades later, during Patrick’s tenure, Dominic Cinelli, a career parolee criminal, shot and killed a Woburn police officer in a December 2010 robbery. Five parole board members later resigned , some alleging that Patrick forced them to leave.
“You have this culture which over the past 30 years has been more politically careful,” Medwed said.
Beyond the approval of five clemency petitions, Patrick in 2008 denied a commutation petition for Arnold King, who was convicted of shooting a Boston political assistant in 1971. King was released in 2020 by a judge who overturned his conviction for first degree murder on the basis of the evidence. that prosecutors deliberately excluded black residents from an all-white jury that found him guilty.
Even now, few petitions are heard and even fewer reach the governor. Since Baker took office in 2015, the Pardons Advisory Board has only brought forward 13 hearing requests, with Koonce being the first. In the past two years, 181 prisoners have filed petitions, 116 of which have requested commutations.
The fact that so few of them were sent for governor review, lawyers say, underscores Massachusetts’ conservative record on leniency despite its reputation as a progressive policy, especially on civil rights. The state, for example, ranks in the bottom third of states for frequency of pardons, according to a study by the nonprofit Collateral Consequences Resource Center.
This is in part a reflection of a tough mentality towards crime that has permeated the thinking of politicians “as a way to win an election,” said Pauline Quirion, director of CORI and the Re-entry Project at Greater Boston Legal Services.
“Mercy is meant to be an act of mercy,” Quirion said. “With the state of things right now, there doesn’t seem to be any mercy, at least at this point.”
Koonce, the Brockton native whose claim is now in Baker’s hands, was a 20-year-old Marine on leave when he shot dead Mark Santos, 24, as he fled an angry mob in New Bedford. He said he accidentally killed Santos and rejected a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to manslaughter and serve five to ten years in prison.
His first trial ended with a suspended jury. In 1992, an all-white jury convicted Koonce, who is black, of first degree murder, resulting in a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. He served 29 years in prison.
The victim’s mother, Virginia Santos, said on Tuesday that she “prayed all the time” that Koonce would never be released and hopes Baker rejects her request to be switched.
“I will always feel the same,” Santos said. “He’s where he belongs.”
In recommending that his sentence be commuted, the council noted that Koonce had no criminal record, was honorably released by the Marines, and during his decades in prison, participated in numerous programs aimed at preventing violence and to recognize the harm done to victims and their families. .
In 2010, the prosecutor who secured Koonce’s conviction said in a commutation hearing that the case had worried his conscience because he did not believe the evidence supported a conviction for first degree murder. He said he feared Koonce did not get a fair trial because his lawyer failed to question potential jurors about racial bias.
In Allen’s case, even though another man involved in the robbery stabbed Purvis Bester to death, Allen was convicted of first degree murder because a jury found he had participated in a crime that resulted in death. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Before trial, Allen could have agreed to a deal in which he would have pleaded guilty to second degree murder and received a life sentence with the possibility of parole, but he refused. Prosecutors offered the same deal to the killer, who agreed and has been on parole since 2009. Allen has been in jail for almost 28 years.
The victim’s daughter told the advisory board she believes Allen’s switchover should be granted.
“We shouldn’t have to wait until the last year of a governor’s eight-year term,” Governor Council member Terrence Kennedy said of approving a pardon request. He and fellow Gov. Paul DePalo advisor support Koonce and Allen’s switching petitions. “The system works when you use it. “