For the first time in a quarter-century, the Massachusetts Governor’s Council on Wednesday commuted the life without parole sentences of two prisoners convicted of first-degree murder, making them eligible for release and reopening a potential path to freedom for others who make “extraordinary” strides behind bars.
In a unanimous vote, the eight-member board granted Governor Charlie Baker’s request to reduce the sentences of Thomas Koonce, 54, and William Allen, 48, from first- to second-degree murder after scrutinizing the nature of their crimes and their efforts to better themselves during several decades in prison.
“I hope this is the dawn of an era where clemency is more common,” said councilor Paul DePalo, adding that the reduced sentences should “provide hope in places where it’s very hard to come by.”
Councilor Mary Hurley said the commutations, the first of any kind granted in Massachusetts since 2014, mark “a new era.” She said her vote was based not on the crimes Koonce and Allen committed but on “what they have done with their lives since then.”
Both Koonce and Allen, she said, were young men “who made mistakes and have paid for them with sentences that were required by law.”
“But the reason they are going to get out is because of the fact they took advantage of opportunities that were presented to them in the prison system” through many programs, she said.
Allen has spent 28 years in prison for participating in a 1994 armed robbery in Brockton that turned deadly when his friend stabbed a man to death.
Koonce, of Brockton, was a 20-year-old Marine home on leave in 1987 when he shot and killed 24-year-old Mark Santos in New Bedford while fleeing from an angry crowd. He’s been in prison for more than 29 years.
In January, Baker approved commutation requests from both men, the first time he granted such relief since taking office in 2015. He forwarded their petitions to the Governor’s Council, the final step in the commutation process.
In a statement Wednesday, Baker called the authority to commute and pardon people “one of the most sacred and important powers of this office” and said he spent months reviewing both cases.
“I believe both men have taken responsibility for their actions and have paid their debt to the Commonwealth by serving sentences longer than most individuals found guilty of similar actions,” he added. “I thank the Governor’s Council for doing the same and making the right decision.”
Koonce and Allen faced separate commutation hearings before the council in recent weeks but were not present for Wednesday’s approval. For now, they will remain in prison. But both will soon seek hearings before the Parole Board, which unanimously recommended their commutations to Baker last year while sitting as the Advisory Board of Pardons.
“It’s a historical moment,” said Patricia DeJuneas, one of Allen’s lawyers. “William and the work that he has done is largely responsible for us being here today. And based on his good works and the self-improvement that he’s devoted himself to, I believe he’s opened the door for people and I hope to see more commutations done.”
Koonce’s lawyer, Timothy C. Foley, said the commutations are a significant step forward for criminal justice reform in Massachusetts and show that clemency is now “a real remedy” for prisoners who deserve a second chance.
“Thomas Koonce is certainly a person who has paved the way for many others,” said Foley, citing the work Koonce has done to improve himself and others.
Koonce was with friends in July 1987 when a fight erupted between rival groups from Brockton and New Bedford. He said he was in a car trying to escape a crowd wielding bats when he stuck his gun out the window and fired a single warning shot and accidentally killed Santos.
His first trial ended with a hung jury. In 1992, an all-white jury convicted Koonce, who is Black.
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 prospective jurors weren’t questioned about racial bias.
Koonce earned a degree from Boston University while in prison, participated in numerous rehabilitation and restorative justice programs, and mentored other inmates. Santos’s family has vehemently opposed Koonce’s commutation.
Allen, a Roxbury native, was 20 in February 1994 when he helped a friend rob a reputed drug dealer. They pushed their way into Purvis Bester’s apartment at knifepoint, and while Allen was in another room, his friend fatally stabbed Bester, according to trial testimony.
Before the trial, Allen declined an offer to plead guilty to second-degree murder and receive a life sentence with parole eligibility after 15 years. The man who stabbed Bester accepted the same deal and has been out on parole since 2009.
Allen was convicted of felony first-degree murder for participating in a robbery that resulted in death.
In prison, Allen has earned a master barber’s license, become a Eucharistic minister and a volunteer in the Catholic community, and worked in the Bridgewater State Hospital Companion Program, providing care for patients with severe mental illness.
The family of Allen’s victim supported his commutation.
Councilor Terrence Kennedy said Koonce and Allen both deserved to have their sentences reduced.
“It doesn’t mean they are innocent,” he said. “They paid a very high price for what they did.”
The last commutation for a prisoner serving a life without parole sentence was in 1997 for Joseph Salvati, who spent 30 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.