Thomas Koonce and William Allen are today one step closer to freedom — and Massachusetts is one step closer to proving that a clemency process that really works can help remedy the injustices of the past.
Governor Charlie Baker announced Wednesday he would commute the first-degree murder sentences of Koonce, 54, who has served 30 years in prison, and Allen, 48, who has been behind bars for 27 years. They are the first such commutations in the state in more than a quarter-century.
Both were extraordinary cases in part because of the circumstances of those original convictions, but also because their causes attracted the attention of so many in the community, including the legal community, and, yes, in the media, which shined a bright light on their stories and on a clemency process that had been allowed to languish.
Koonce was a 19-year-old Marine home on leave on that night in 1987 when the car he was riding in was surrounded by a large and angry crowd in New Bedford. Koonce says he intended to shoot into the air, but the shot he fired killed Mark Santos. Koonce was free on bail for nearly five years, finishing his stint in the Marines with an honorable discharge. His first trial ended in a hung jury; his second, heard by an all-white jury (Koonce is Black), ended in a conviction for first-degree murder. Prior to each trial, he was offered a plea deal which would have kept him in prison for no more than 10 years. He didn’t take either.
Allen was 21 on the night he and Roland Perry broke into a Brockton apartment to rob Purvis Bester. Perry fatally stabbed Bester, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and has been out of prison for more than a decade. Allen refused a plea deal and was convicted of first-degree murder, which carries a life sentence. The state’s highest court has since revisited and narrowed the doctrine of felony murder as a joint venture, but Allen has remained in prison.
Robert Jubinville, now a member of the Governor’s Council, was Allen’s lawyer at the time and said he begged Allen to take the deal. Now, nearly three decades later, he will get another chance to free Allen when the council votes on the governor’s commutation petitions, possibly later this month.
From there the petitions go to the Parole Board, the same group of people, sitting as the Advisory Board of Pardons, that unanimously recommended the governor commute the sentences of both men to second-degree murder, making them eligible for parole and, therefore, for release.
Koonce and Allen are, of course, textbook cases on how the clemency process should work to right wrongs and to reward those who have led exemplary lives behind bars — amassing degrees and doing good works with fellow inmates and civic and religious groups.
But they should not be exceptions to the rule. Rather, they should be the exemplars — the kind of candidates the Board of Pardons should be looking for as they sort through the dozens of petitions that remain before them from prisoners looking just to have their cases heard. Hearings should not be the rarified events they have come to be during this administration.
And Baker, who decided on the Koonce commutation just days shy of the one-year deadline that would have sent it back to square one, can do better in the days that remain in his term. He can let his Advisory Board of Pardons know he’s open to more such worthy cases.
But it will remain for Baker’s successor to tackle and revamp a system that has grown rusty from lack of use.
Last March the Massachusetts Bar Association Clemency Task Force issued a report that provides something of a roadmap for that reexamination. It noted, “In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the power of clemency is an under-utilized tool that should be applied on a case-by-case basis to address systemic failures, such as the racial injustice that permeates every step of our criminal legal system.”
The next governor has the power to issue clemency guidelines that, as the task force recommends, take into account the youth of the petitioner at the age the crime was committed and the age or frailty of a prisoner now. California’s clemency process already does both, giving priority to those who were 20 or under at the time they were charged and those 50 or over who have served 25 years or more.
The MBA task force also proposed real timetables for the Board of Pardons to act on a petition after it is filed and suggested six months for a decision by the governor. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, who has become a national leader on the issue of clemency reform, today operates under similar guidelines and, to date, has commuted 38 life sentences making the recipients eligible for parole.
The idea of timetables and priorities are hardly radical notions. States with far larger prison systems and thousands more inmates are today putting those ideas into practice and, in the process, putting more justice back into their criminal justice systems. Massachusetts should be joining them.
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