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Time to put Willie Horton to rest: Governor Baker should commute Koonce, Allen sentences

Governor Charlie Baker has signaled a willingness to at least consider clemency.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The ghost of Willie Horton has haunted Massachusetts for far too long. Governor Charlie Baker has the perfect opportunity to fix that.

Baker has just a few days to decide whether to approve clemency for Thomas E. Koonce, who has been in prison since 1987 for the killing of a New Bedford man. Last January, the state’s Advisory Board on Pardons recommended that Baker commute Koonce’s sentence, which would make him eligible for parole; under state guidelines Baker has one year — that’s until later this week — to act on the recommendation.

Or it dies.

Koonce was a 20 year-old Marine with no criminal record when he shot and killed Mark Santos while fleeing a mob in New Bedford. He maintained the killing was an accident, and declined to plead guilty to manslaughter.

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So Koonce, who is Black, was convicted of first-degree murder by an all-white jury in 1992, and he was sentenced to life without parole. So far, he has served 29 years in prison.

Koonce’s push for release has won powerful supporters. Last week, four former Supreme Judicial Court justices, as well as US Attorney Rachael Rollins, signed a letter in support of commutation, noting his hard work to rehabilitate himself and saying that clemency would “send a message of hope to all prisoners, of all races.”

There’s a strong argument that Koonce’s case never should have been charged as first-degree murder to begin with. The prosecutor in his trial testified at a commutation hearing in 2010 that the facts didn’t fit a first-degree murder charge because, among other things, it lacked premeditation, and expressed regret that he didn’t question potential jurors about possible racial bias.

Behind bars, Koonce has, by all accounts, been a model citizen, participating in antiviolence programs and expressing remorse for the damage done to victims and their families by violence.

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In short, he checks every box for clemency.

“If you look at Tom Koonce’s life, he fits the guidelines for clemency so perfectly,” his attorney, Timothy Foley, said Tuesday.

Koonce’s case is but one of two bids for clemency that have drawn public support recently.

In another, William Allen also was recommended for clemency last September, pending a decision by Baker. Allen has been incarcerated since 1994 for his role in a fatal armed robbery. In that case, Allen was not even in the same room when the murder occurred but was convicted of first-degree murder because he was involved in a felony tied to the murder.

“He was in another room, and the stabbing was unprovoked and unexpected,” Allen’s attorney, Patricia DeJuneas, told me. The actual killer pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of second-degree murder and has been out of prison since 2009. Allen rejected a similar deal before standing trial.

DeJuneas, who’s represented Allen since 2012, said her client has studiously applied himself to trying to make amends for his deeds and preparing for a productive life outside prison, should he win release.

Baker has signaled a willingness to at least consider clemency. His legal team has met with Koonce’s and Allen’s lawyers, allowing them to make their case. But the governor himself has been noncommittal. He’s not showing his cards.

Which brings us back to Willie Horton.

Horton, of course, was the convicted murderer who raped a woman while on a weekend furlough in 1987. A political ad about Horton helped kill Michael Dukakis’s presidential bid in 1988.

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It also had the long-lasting effect of making governors extremely squirrelly about showing leniency in any form to those behind bars. The outcry over Horton made compassion very bad — or at least, very risky — politics.

As a result, commutations and pardons have been rare events for more than a quarter of a century. Baker has never granted a commutation; his predecessor, Deval Patrick, commuted just one sentence in eight years in office.

But this power exists so that wrongs can be righted, and there simply is no serious argument that Koonce or Allen should spend the rest of their lives in prison. Both have served their debt to Massachusetts, with compound interest.

One silver lining: When governors have commuted sentences recently, it’s always been at the end of their terms. That describes Baker right now.

Do the right thing, governor. Do it this week.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.