William Allen was 20 and working at a veterans hospital in 1994 when a childhood friend asked if he would help him rob a reputed drug dealer. At first, Allen told him he was crazy, but then reluctantly agreed. They pushed their way into a Brockton apartment at knifepoint, and while Allen assured several women that everything would be all right, his friend fatally stabbed a man in another room.
Although a jury found Allen didn’t directly participate in the killing of 42-year-old Purvis Bester, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole in 1997. The man who stabbed Bester pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was paroled 12 years ago.
On Tuesday, Allen, 47, expressed remorse for his crime as he urged the Massachusetts Parole Board to grant his request for a commutation after 27 years in prison.
“I am truly sorry for what I have done,” said Allen, who during a 3½-hour remote hearing recalled his role in the crime, his transformation in prison, his deep regret that he could not prevent his own son from ending up in prison, and his hope that he can persuade others to choose a different path. “I, and I alone, am responsible. I failed to make better choices.”
Allen is only the second inmate to be granted a commutation hearing in seven years. In January, the board voted unanimously to recommend that Governor Charlie Baker commute the sentence of Thomas E. Koonce, who is serving life without parole for a 1987 slaying in New Bedford when he was a 20-year-old Marine home on leave. Baker has yet to act on the petition.
The board took Allen’s request under advisement. If Baker approves a commutation petition, it goes to the Governor’s Council for final approval.
Allen, a Roxbury native, has significant community support and is represented by several lawyers, including Robert J. Cordy, a former justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. His bid for freedom drew additional support Tuesday from Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz, whose office prosecuted him decades ago, and the victim’s family.
“I forgive you for what you have done,” Bester’s daughter, Leah Cole, said after Allen expressed remorse and described his participation in restorative justice and alternatives-to-violence programs and his desire to become a youth counselor and outreach worker if he’s released.
“Brockton needs positivity, because Brockton is struggling right now,” Cole said, adding that she believed people could learn a lot from Allen.
Bester’s two brothers also support Allen’s commutation, but his sister, Hattie Bester, opposes it, Cruz told the board. She had been scheduled to testify Tuesday but could not access the remote hearing because of technical difficulties, according to the board. She was invited to submit her comments in writing within two weeks.
Cruz said Allen’s felony murder conviction was “one of those rare cases” that warranted reconsideration and asked the board to recommend that Allen’s sentence be commuted to life with the possibility of parole.
Allen was convicted of first-degree felony murder based on the jury’s finding that he had been a joint venture in an armed robbery. In 2017, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that defendants in fatal crimes can no longer be convicted of first-degree murder unless it is proven that they set out to kill or knew their actions would likely turn fatal. The law was not retroactive.
“It is unknown whether he would be convicted of that same crime today,” Cruz said.
Allen said he grew up in Roxbury with a mother who was addicted to drugs. He found refuge at the home of a friend, Rolando Perry, whose mother was like a mother to him. In 1994, Perry was selling drugs when he asked Allen to help him rob a man he believed was also selling drugs and had cash stashed there, Allen told the board.
“I was a follower,” Allen said. He said he loved Perry like a brother and felt pressured to help him because he “didn’t want to look weak, and I was foolish.”
Allen said he didn’t see Perry stab Bester, but saw him laying on the floor with blood on his shirt as Perry stomped on him. Perry pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was paroled in 2009.
Allen said he was offered a plea bargain before trial that would have allowed him to plead guilty to second-degree murder. He would have been eligible for parole after serving 15 years. But Allen said he rejected it because he didn’t believe he should be punished for a murder he didn’t commit and did not understand the seriousness of his situation.
But Allen said he now recognizes that he was equally responsible for Bester’s slaying. Allen said his transformation began in 2004, after he spent 42 days in solitary confinement for a disciplinary infraction. He also learned that his mother was dying of cancer.
“I am not asking you to forget what I’ve done; I just want you to know that’s not who I am today,” Allen said. If he’s freed, he said, he wants to “make good footprints for children of color to follow because I don’t want them to follow the same footprints as I did.”