For the first time in six years, the state Advisory Board of Pardons is urging Governor Charlie Baker to commute a convicted murderer’s life sentence after unanimously concluding that Thomas E. Koonce deserves his freedom after spending 28 years in prison for the 1987 slaying of a New Bedford man.
In a decision made public Friday, the board recommended that Koonce’s sentence be reduced from first- to second-degree murder, making him eligible for parole, because of his “extraordinary commitment to self-improvement and self-development.”
Koonce, a Brockton native, was a 20-year-old Marine home on leave when he shot and killed 24-year-old Mark Santos while fleeing an angry crowd in New Bedford. He said he had accidentally killed Santos and rejected a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to manslaughter and serve five to 10 years in prison. In 1992, a jury rejected his claims of self-defense and convicted him of first-degree murder, resulting in a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.
The board noted that Koonce had no previous criminal record, was honorably discharged by the Marines, and during his decades in prison has participated in numerous programs aimed at preventing violence and acknowledging the harm done to victims and their families.
“Mr. Koonce is currently serving his first commitment for a single act of violence,” the board wrote. “He has served 28 years for the first-degree murder of Mark Santos, for which he has always accepted responsibility. Pending his conviction, Mr. Koonce was released on bail in the community for approximately five years without incident.”
The board cited Koonce’s “exemplary conduct” in prison, saying he had helped create “rehabilitative programming to address restorative justice and emotional healing within the institution.”
A spokeswoman said Baker is reviewing the board’s recommendation.
If Baker approves Koonce’s commutation petition, it goes to the Governor’s Council for final approval.
The victim’s mother, Virginia Santos, had urged the board to reject Koonce’s commutation petition.
“I can’t do anything more about it,” she said Friday. “It’s in God’s hands. Maybe the governor won’t approve it. It’s not over yet.”
Koonce’s commutation hearing in October was the first the board has held since 2014. There are currently about 60 commutation petitions pending, according to state officials.
“I’m just very thrilled for Tom,” said Koonce’s attorney, Timothy C. Foley. “It was a thorough and fair hearing. I think in this instance, the system worked and the board came to the right decision.”
He said the board had considered Koonce’s remorse and the work he has done in prison.
“It’s not where you are, it’s who you are and he took advantage of the opportunities to gain insight into himself, into his actions, and engage in self-improvement and become the person that went before the board 28 years after his conviction.”
Koonce was out with friends on a night in July 1987 when a fight at a nightclub between rival groups from Brockton and New Bedford quickly escalated as it spilled into the streets. He 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. After his friend was arrested, Koonce went to the police station with his mother and told police that he had fired the shot and didn’t want his friend to pay for his mistake.
Koonce told police he feared for his life and fired in self-defense, meaning to scare off the crowd with a warning shot. His first trial ended with a hung jury. In 1992, an all-white jury convicted Koonce, who is Black.
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. He said he was concerned that Koonce did not receive a fair trial because his lawyer failed to question prospective jurors about racial bias although he had done so at the first trial.
During his commutation hearing, Koonce said he no longer claims the slaying was self-defense and knows that it was reckless to be in New Bedford that night, carrying a gun and firing near a crowd.
He apologized to the Santos family and said “I am forever committed to a life of reparation and restoration, inside and outside prison walls.”
John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.