In this season of thanksgiving — the time of year when goodness and mercy seem a little closer to the surface — the lives and the freedom and the futures of two men come immediately to mind.
The futures of Thomas Koonce and William Allen are in the hands one man — the governor of this Commonwealth, Charlie Baker. And he seems in no great hurry to act.
Both men, who have served decades in prison, have been unanimously recommended for sentence commutations by the state Advisory Board of Pardons — Koonce in a recommendation issued last January, Allen’s in September. Both still await their fate. If Baker grants clemency, the petitions go to the Governor’s Council for final approval.
So wouldn’t this be a good time for Baker to let the spirit of the season move him to do something he has not done in more than seven years — commute a prison sentence and right the injustices of years past?
If Baker is indeed contemplating a run for a third gubernatorial term, how he deals with these two petitions will provide a glimpse into that future administration and how he intends to handle issues of criminal and racial justice.
The cases are compelling ones — so compelling that the Advisory Board of Pardons (the name assigned to the state’s Parole Board when it meets on pardons and commutations), which had not even granted a clemency hearing since 2014, at last agreed to do so in these cases. More than 200 other petitions for clemency are still pending before them.
▪ Thomas Koonce, who has served 28 years in prison, was a 20-year-old Marine home on leave in 1987 when he fired a shot out a car window that killed 24-year-old Mark Santos. The incident took place in the middle of a fight between rival groups from Brockton and New Bedford. Koonce said he fired off the shot in self defense. He later turned himself in to police. While out on bail for five years, he was honorably discharged from the Marines.
Koonce rejected a deal offered by prosecutors that would have allowed him to plead guilty to manslaughter and serve five to 10 years in prison. Instead, he was convicted in 1992 by an all-white jury of first-degree murder, which carried a life sentence without parole. A decade ago, the prosecutor in the case unsuccessfully asked the board to reduce the sentence, insisting the evidence did not support premeditation and raising concerns that the lawyer for Koonce did not question prospective jurors about racial bias.
In recommending clemency, the board praised Koonce’s “extraordinary commitment to self development and self improvement,” including earning a degree from Boston University, counseling inmates and at-risk youth, and cofounding a restorative justice program.
▪ William Allen was also 20 at the time of the 1994 armed robbery and murder of a reputed Brockton drug dealer. Allen was not the killer but was charged with felony murder under the state’s joint venture doctine — a concept narrowed by the Supreme Judicial Court in 2017. He, too, was offered a plea deal, which he didn’t take. The man who did the killing took the deal and was released on parole in 2011.
The victim’s daughter and Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz both supported Allen’s commutation, Cruz noting that this was “one of the rare cases that warrants reconsideration.” Allen also won praise from the board for his 2011 intervention to protect a female correction officer from attack, and also his work in a restorative justice program and in a program for patients with mental illness.
Allen’s commutation has since attracted the support of New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty and other members of the Patriots organization, support that included two rallies on the steps of the State House aimed at the one man who holds the key to Allen’s cell door.
“I hope and pray you decide the best place for him to lay his head is outside of prison,” McCourty said at a September rally.
The governor in his own clemency guidelines, issued in February 2020, set his timetable for making a decision, and in the case of Thomas Koonce that deadline is drawing near. Under Baker’s guidelines, any positive recommendation from the board not acted on in one year “shall presume that the governor disagrees with that positive recommendation and will not grant the petitioner executive clemency.”
It’s rather like the pocket veto of a bill — except in this case the future and the freedom of a human being is at stake.
Baker’s only comment to date was in the wake of the Allen recommendation, when he told State House News Service, “Anything that involves a decision like that is going to go through our legal office.”
That was two months ago.
The Board of Pardons expressed no reservations about either of these pleas for clemency. There is a time for justice and a time for compassion — and it’s time Baker showed he understands the need for both.
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