Charlie Baker will soon choose whether to do something no Massachusetts governor has done in a quarter-century: commute a convicted murderer’s life sentence.
The looming decision, expected in some form this week, could have far-reaching legal and political reverberations for other inmates seeking their freedom, Baker’s legacy, and the rarely used measure of gubernatorial mercy in Massachusetts.
Baker’s choice comes in the case of Thomas E. Koonce, a Brockton native who has spent nearly three decades in prison for the 1987 slaying of a New Bedford man. The state’s Advisory Board of Pardons last January urged Baker to commute Koonce’s life sentence, recommending it be reduced from first- to second-degree murder and thus make Koonce, 54, eligible for parole. The board cited Koonce’s “extraordinary commitment to self-improvement and self-development.”
The recommendation was the first time since Baker took office in 2015 that the board, which also doubles as the state Parole Board, sent him a petition for his approval; in September, it sent him a second, recommending he also commute the life sentence of William Allen, 48, who was convicted of taking part in a fatal armed robbery of a reputed drug dealer in Brockton in 1994.
Last month, the board held four more clemency hearings, including one person seeking a commutation and three others seeking pardons. A commutation reduces an inmate’s sentence, paving the way for immediate release or parole eligibility, while a pardon erases a conviction.
The surge in activity, combined with Baker’s self-imposed deadline to act on petitions, is fueling optimism among legal observers that the state could embrace clemency for the first time in years.
Approving the petitions would send “a message that Governor Baker is interested and willing to correct decades of systemic racial injustice,” said attorney Patricia DeJuneas, who represents Allen. “This is about humanity, human dignity, and human rights. And it’s about doing the right thing.”
Under guidelines Baker issued in 2020, he has one year to act on a board recommendation, which in Koonce’s case was made last Jan. 14. If Baker agrees, the petition would go for final approval to the eight-person Governor’s Council, where at least two members publicly support commuting Koonce’s sentence.
But if Baker opts not to act at all, Koonce’s clemency petition is dead. He’d have to wait a year before he could renew his request, said his attorney, Timothy C. Foley.
Foley said he met with Baker’s legal team in September and again on Dec. 20 and was told that the governor is still considering Koonce’s petition.
“They tell me that it’s a very live issue,” Foley said. “Mr. Koonce at this point prays that Governor Baker accepts the Advisory Board’s recommendation and grants mercy.”
A Baker spokesman said the governor is still reviewing the board’s “recent recommendations.”
The case is being closely watched in legal and criminal justice advocacy circles, in part for its timing. Baker said last month he won’t seek reelection, meaning he is now beginning the final year of his two-term tenure — a timeframe often seen as ripe for such politically sensitive decisions.
The only clemency petitions the state has approved in nearly 20 years came in the waning months of Governor Deval Patrick’s second term, when he approved four pardons and the commutation of Deanne Hamilton, a 49-year-old convicted drug dealer. Acting Governor Jane Swift approved seven pardons in 2002, also during her final year in office. In between, Governor Mitt Romney approved none.
The last time a life sentence was commuted in Massachusetts was in 1997, when Governor William Weld recommended the Governor’s Council commute the sentence of Joseph Salvati, who spent 30 years in prison for a murder that he didn’t commit.
That relative cautiousness 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, raped a woman while on a weekend furlough in 1987. Horton was later the subject of a now-infamous political ad, helping sink then-Governor Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential bid.
“After Willie Horton, there was this perception that the parole board would be really careful with any and all release decisions,” Medwed said.
Decades later during Patrick’s tenure, Dominic Cinelli, a career criminal out on parole, fatally shot a Woburn police officer during a robbery in December 2010. Five members of the Parole Board later resigned, with some alleging Patrick forced them out.
“You have this culture that over the last 30 years has been more cautious politically,” Medwed said.
Beyond approving five clemency petitions, Patrick in 2008 rejected a commutation petition for Arnold King, who was convicted of shooting a Boston political aide to death in 1971. King was released in 2020 by a judge who vacated his first-degree murder conviction based on evidence that prosecutors deliberately excluded Black residents from an all-white jury that found him guilty.
Even now, few petitions get a hearing and fewer still actually make it to the governor. Since Baker took office in 2015, the Advisory Board of Pardons has advanced only 13 petitions for hearings, with Koonce being the first. In the past two years, 181 prisoners filed petitions, including 116 that sought commutations.
That so few have been sent for the governor’s review, advocates say, underscores Massachusetts’ conservative record for leniency despite its reputation for progressive policy, particularly on civil rights. The state, for example, ranks in the bottom third among states in pardoning frequency, according to a study by the nonprofit Collateral Consequences Resource Center.
It’s partly a reflection of a tough-on-crime mentality that has permeated politicians’ thinking “as a way to win an election,” said Pauline Quirion, director of the CORI and Re-entry Project at Greater Boston Legal Services.
“Clemency is intended to be an act of mercy,” Quirion said. “With the state of affairs right now, there doesn’t seem to be any mercy happening, at least at this juncture.”
Koonce, the Brockton native whose request is now in Baker’s hands, 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.
His 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 life sentence without the possibility of parole. He has served 29 years in prison.
The victim’s mother, Virginia Santos, said Tuesday that she “prays all the time” that Koonce will never be released and hopes Baker denies his commutation petition.
“I will always feel the same way,” Santos said. “He’s right where he belongs.”
In recommending his sentence be commuted, 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.
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.
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 participated in a felony that resulted in a death. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Before the trial, Allen could have accepted a deal in which he would have pled guilty to second-degree murder and received a life sentence with the possibility of parole, but he declined. Prosecutors offered the same deal to the killer, who accepted and has been out on parole since 2009. Allen has been in prison for nearly 28 years.
The victim’s daughter told the advisory board she believes Allen’s commutation should be granted.
“We shouldn’t have to wait for the last year of a governor’s eight years in office,” Terrence Kennedy, a member of the Governor’s Council, said of approving a clemency request. Both he and fellow Governor’s Councilor Paul DePalo support Koonce’s and Allen’s commutation petitions. “The system works when you use it.”