Thomas Koonce was a 20-year-old Marine in 1987 when he shot and killed a New Bedford man while fleeing an angry crowd. Five years later, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
On Tuesday, Koonce fought back tears as he told the Massachusetts Parole Board about the restorative justice and self-improvement programs he has devoted himself to during his 28 years in prison. Koonce is the first prisoner to receive a commutation hearing since 2014.
“I fired the fatal shot that killed your son and for that I am truly sorry,” said Koonce, 53, as he appeared on video during the virtual hearing, which was attended by the mother, sister, and nieces of the victim, 24-year-old Mark Santos. “I am forever committed to a life of reparation and restoration, inside and outside prison walls.”
A number of supporters testified on Koonce’s behalf, including Conan Harris, the husband of US Representative Ayanna Pressley, who credited Koonce with helping him turn his life around while he was incarcerated on drug offenses as a young man.
Santos’s family urged the parole board to reject Koonce’s request for a sentence reduction that would make him eligible for parole.
“Our heartache never ends,” said Virginia Santos. “You’ll never know my pain unless your son was taken from you under those circumstances.”
“Our life sentence can never, ever, be commuted,” Michelle Santos said of the grief and pain the family has endured every day since her brother’s slaying. “And neither should Mr. Koonce’s life sentence.”
Bristol County District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III, whose office prosecuted Koonce, told the board he did not oppose Koonce’s commutation after weighing the “totality of the circumstances,” including his “exceptional institutional record" and military service.
“I think his case is a case that would warrant serious consideration for a commutation,” Quinn said. He said if Koonce’s conviction were reduced to second-degree murder, making him eligible for parole, “it would not undermine the jury verdict."
The board’s chair, Gloriann Moroney, said additional documents related to Koonce’s commutation may be filed in the next two weeks. The board will make a recommendation to the governor. If the governor grants the commutation, it goes to the Governor’s Council for final approval.
Koonce, of Brockton, was home on leave from the Marines on July 21, 1987, when a night out with friends turned violent. A fight at a nightclub between rival groups from Brockton and New Bedford quickly escalated as it spilled into the streets.
Koonce was in a car trying to escape an angry crowd wielding bats when he stuck his gun out the window and fired a single shot, killing Santos, according to trial testimony. Koonce told police he feared for his life and fired in self-defense, meaning to scare off the crowd with a warning shot. He said he accidentally killed Santos and rejected a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to manslaughter and spend five to 10 years in prison.
Koonce’s first trial ended with a hung jury. In 1992, an all-white jury convicted Koonce, who is Black, of first-degree murder, resulting in a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
In 2010, the prosecutor who won Koonce’s conviction testified at a commutation hearing that the case bothered his conscience because he didn’t believe the evidence supported a first-degree murder conviction.
“I cannot be silent when I helped bring about the conviction of a man for the wrong crime, a verdict that went too far,” John Moses wrote to the Parole Board after testifying.
Moses, who has since died, said the evidence did not support premeditation and was more consistent with second-degree murder, which would have allowed Koonce to be eligible for parole after 15 years.
He also said he was concerned that Koonce did not receive a fair trial because his lawyer failed to question prospective jurors about racial bias, which he had done at the first trial.
The Parole Board rejected Koonce’s first commutation bid, concluding that he had made significant strides in prison but his efforts “focused on helping others rather than addressing the underlying causes of his own criminal conduct.”
On Tuesday, Koonce spoke about participating in dozens of programs in prison and cofounding a restorative justice program at MCI-Norfolk that has brought together victims' families, inmates, judges, prosecutors, and police to discuss the impact of violent crimes.
Harris, formerly Boston’s deputy director of public safety, said he met Koonce in prison 24 years ago. Overseeing a program for young offenders, Koonce held them to high standards, he said.
“He was consistent in behavior, attitude, and who he is when it comes to helping others,” Harris said.
Janet Connors, a longtime social justice activist whose teenage son was murdered, told the board she met Koonce when she went to the prison’s restorative justice program.
“Tom Koonce has been an important part of my healing journey,” she said. She never imagined she would be sitting in circles with men who had committed murders and asking them to be accountable for the pain they caused.
“He’s making a difference in people’s lives inside and outside the walls,” said Connors, crediting Koonce with teaching inmates to lead nonviolent lives after their release. “I truly believe that this man is going to keep many other mothers from crying tears and already has.”
During a hearing that stretched past five hours, board members peppered Koonce with questions about the slaying and whether he has accepted responsibility. Koonce said he no longer claims the slaying was self-defense and knows that it was arrogant and reckless to be in New Bedford that night, carrying a gun and firing near a crowd.
“Everything I am doing is helping me to be a better man,” he said.