Governor Charlie Baker on Monday suggested he’s open to the idea of granting clemency to those seeking to reduce their prison sentence or wipe out old convictions, but he did not say how he plans to act before a looming deadline on the first case to reach his desk.
Baker must decide by week’s end whether he agrees with the state Advisory Board of Pardons’ recommendation to commute the life sentence 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 second-term Republican is facing increasing pressure to act. A group of high-profile jurists including four retired Supreme Judicial Court justices and Rachael Rollins, the state’s newly sworn-in US Attorney, called on Baker in a Friday letter to approve Koonce’s petition as well as that of a second man, William Allen.
The governor, they wrote, has an “unprecedented opportunity to recognize exceptional work done by both men and to send a message of hope to all prisoners, of all races.”
The Advisory Board of Pardons, which also doubles as the state Parole Board, last January urged Baker to commute Koonce’s life sentence, recommending it be reduced from first- to second-degree murder while citing Koonce’s “extraordinary commitment to self-improvement and self-development.” Should Baker agree, and the recommendation is then approved by the Governor’s Council, Koonce, 54, would become eligible for parole.
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 opts not to act at all, Koonce’s clemency petition is considered dead, and he would have to wait a year before he could renew his request, according to his attorney, Timothy C. Foley.
Baker said Monday he and his staff have had “several conversations about the recommendations” before him without offering how he intends to act. “We recognize and understand that there’s a deadline coming up,” Baker said at an unrelated State House news conference.
Baker has never issued a commutation or pardon during seven years in office, but he indicated he’s not philosophically opposed to granting them.
“We wouldn’t have updated our guidance and our criteria if we didn’t want to give people an opportunity to pursue it,” he said.
A group that includes retired SJC justices Margot Botsford, Fernande R.V. Duffly, Geraldine Hines and Robert Cordy, who currently represents Allen, commended the state’s Advisory Board of Pardons “for breaking the logjam created by years of inaction on petitions” by unanimously recommending commutations for Koonce and Allen last year; the board sent Baker its recommendation for Allen in September.
In their letter to Baker, they said the two men “more than meet all of the requirements” for clemency, noting they’ve done their time peacefully, participated in Department of Correction programming, and “earned the trust of those responsible for their custody and care.”
“We urge you to accept the Board’s unanimous recommendations and act on these petitions now,” the group wrote.
Others who signed the letter include Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency; Rahsaan Hall, the former director of the racial justice program for the ACLU of Massachusetts; Harvard criminal justice professor Sandra Susan Smith; Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed, and Attorney Stephen Rosenfeld.
Rollins signed the letter last week while serving as Suffolk County District Attorney, and was sworn in Monday as US Attorney for Massachusetts.
The commutation petitions were the first to be sent to Baker for approval since he took office in 2015. In both cases, the Advisory Board unanimously recommended commuting their sentences from first- to second-degree murder, making them eligible for parole. If Baker approves them, they will be sent to the Governor’s Council for a final decision.
Koonce has served 29 years in prison for the 1987 slaying of 24-year-old Mark Santos of New Bedford. Koonce was a 20-year-old Marine home on leave when he shot and killed Santos while fleeing an angry crowd in New Bedford. He said he had accidentally killed Santos while firing a warning shot 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.
The victim’s mother, Virginia Santos, said she opposes Koonce’s release and “will always feel the same way.”
“He’s right where he belongs,” she told the Globe.
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.
Allen, 48, has served nearly 28 years in prison for taking part in the fatal armed robbery of a reputed drug dealer in Brockton in 1994. 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.
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.
In the letter to Baker, the retired justices, Rollins and advocates cited racial injustices in the criminal legal system, resulting in a disproportionate representation of Black and Hispanic men and women in prison.