Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday approved commutation requests for two men serving life sentences for murder in what attorneys called a “groundbreaking” act of mercy not seen in Massachusetts in a quarter of a century.
Baker’s decision to grant the clemency petitions of Thomas E. Koonce and William Allen won praise from both advocates and the district attorney offices that once prosecuted them, and could clear the way for both men to be released after nearly three decades apiece in prison. The state Advisory Board of Pardons had unanimously recommended to Baker last year that he commute their sentences from first- to second-degree murder, making them eligible for parole.
The Governor’s Council, an elected body that vets judicial nominations, must approve Baker’s recommendations. Should the councilors agree with the second-term Republican, Koonce and Allen would then have hearings before the Parole Board, the very body that — doubling as the advisory board — unanimously recommended their commutations.
Baker said he spent months weighing the circumstances of the “two terrible crimes, the actions of the two men since,” and the board’s recommendations before deciding they both earned the right to seek parole. They were the first clemency petitions he’s granted since taking office in 2015.
“The overwhelming information that came from [prison officials] about the sort of personalities and the character of these two, the acceptance of responsibility, the hard work they’ve done to come to grips with what they did and to try to find a way through their own acts and behavior to pay back as best they can for what they’ve taken — it was virtually universal,” Baker said.
Baker, who is not seeking reelection and has a year left in office, said that he intends to weigh clemency petitions on a case-by-case basis, and that considering a commutation for crimes such as murder should be rare. A commutation reduces an inmate’s sentence, paving the way for immediate release or parole eligibility, while a pardon erases a conviction.
“These guys were convicted of murdering someone. That pretty much sits at the top of the pile among the most heinous acts that a civilian can commit,” Baker said. “My own view: It takes very special circumstances for this sort of thing to get a hearing. And that’s appropriate.”
Koonce, 54, was sentenced to life without parole for the 1987 slaying of a New Bedford man. Allen, 48, was convicted of murder for taking part in a fatal armed robbery of a reputed drug dealer in Brockton in 1994.
Terrence Kennedy, a member of the Governor’s Council, said that he and fellow Governor’s Councilor Paul DePalo visited Koonce and Allen in prison, and that he believes both “earned the opportunity to be free.”
“Both men have done extraordinary things while in jail, mentored other inmates, and advanced themselves,” Kennedy said. He said he expects to vote in favor of the commutations, and suggested that while he couldn’t speak for the rest of the eight-member board, “that is a fairly progressive council that believes in second chances.”
The commutations are the first granted by a sitting governor since 2014, when Deval Patrick approved the early release of a woman convicted of cocaine distribution, and the first of a life sentence in 25 years. Before Patrick, the last time any commutation was granted was in 1997, when William Weld recommended the Governor’s Council commute the life sentence of Joseph Salvati, who spent 30 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
“It’s groundbreaking,” said Patricia DeJuneas, an attorney for Allen, who is Black. “Our society is starting to change, and people are learning about clemency in part because of William and how many people he has inspired. It’s an important step to remedy over-incarceration, racial injustice, and other injustices.”
On Wednesday, Allen’s lawyers told him during a Zoom call that Baker had approved his commutation. “He’s got hope in his eyes,” DeJuneas said.
Koonce’s attorney, Timothy C. Foley, who visited Koonce at MCI-Norfolk on Wednesday to deliver the news, said his client was excited and grateful, but also recognized it’s likely a painful day for the family of the man he killed, Mark Santos.
“He said he won’t let the governor down and he won’t let the people of Massachusetts down either,” Foley said.
Koonce, of Brockton, was a 20-year-old Marine home on leave when he shot and killed Santos, 24, while fleeing an angry crowd in New Bedford. He said he had accidentally killed Santos while intending to fire 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. He has served 29 years in prison.
The victim’s mother, Virginia Santos, could not be reached Wednesday, but said last week that she hoped Baker would reject Koonce’s commutation petition.
“I will always feel the same way,” Santos said. “He’s right where he belongs.”
Baker said Wednesday that as a father of three, he understands Santos’s opposition.
“But the facts, the law, and the past 28 years — I had a ton of conversations with people in the legal and law enforcement community — brought us to this decision,” he said.
In Allen’s case, the victim’s daughter told the advisory board she supported Allen’s request for commutation. He also received high-profile backing from members of the New England Patriots, notably safety Devin McCourty, who on Wednesday called news of Allen’s commutation “the greatest team victory I’ve ever been a part of.”
Allen, at age 20, helped another man rob Purvis Bester and was in another room when that man stabbed Bester to death, according to testimony. 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 pleaded 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.
“He was too young to get it through his head. ‘I didn’t stab anybody, I didn’t kill anybody. Why should I go to jail?’ I just couldn’t convince him” to take the plea deal, said Robert Jubinville, who represented Allen at his trial and now sits on the Governor’s Council. He said he supports both commutation requests. “I think it’s good for the system.”
Baker’s decision was celebrated in legal and criminal justice circles, where some embraced it as a potential sign the governor could consider granting others clemency before he leaves office. Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Bar Association, called Baker’s actions “politically courageous.”
Koonce’s and Allen’s petitions are the only ones the advisory board has recommended to Baker, though it’s held hearings for 10 others who’ve sought pardons and one other person seeking a commutation.
“It sets the right tone,” Robert Cordy, a retired Massachusetts Supreme Court justice who represents Allen, said of Baker’s decisions. “I do hope this is sort of the beginning of a new era.”