Once a relatively common course of action on Beacon Hill, Massachusetts elected officials have intervened to commute an inmate's sentence on a single occasion in the 21st century. That could change — twice — in the coming weeks.
Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday announced he would seek to commute the sentences of Thomas Koonce, a 54-year-old who has served 30 years in prison, and William Allen, a 48-year-old who has been in prison for 27 years.
Both men are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole following first-degree murder convictions, and Baker, who said the duo had taken responsibility for their actions and paid their debt to society, formally recommended reducing those sentences to second-degree murder.
If the Governor's Council approves the commutations, Koonce and Allen would become eligible for release on parole after decades behind bars. In interviews Wednesday with the News Service, at least five of the eight councilors -- Robert Jubinville, Paul DePalo, Marilyn Devaney, Terrence Kennedy and Eileen Duff -- praised Baker's commutation recommendations, indicating the panel appears likely to give its approval.
"The authority given to me by the people of Massachusetts to commute and pardon individuals is one of the most sacred and important powers of this office," Baker said in a statement. "There are few things as important to me in this position as ensuring justice is served for the individuals impacted by a crime and my responsibility to ensure fair application of justice to all. To make these difficult decisions, I spent months carefully weighing the circumstances of the two terrible crimes, the actions of the two men since and the Parole Board's recommendation for commutation."
"I believe both men, having taken responsibility for their actions and paid their debt to the Commonwealth by serving sentences longer than most individuals found guilty of similar actions, deserve the right to seek parole from prison," Baker continued, "I hope the Governor's Council carefully weighs the facts of these cases as well as the undeniable impact on the families involved and reaches the same decision."
Allen, in a statement published by the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, thanked Baker and other officials "for believing in me."
"I promise I will never let you down," he said.
Governor's Councilor Christopher Iannella, who will preside over the commutation hearings, which have not been scheduled, said Wednesday that he wants to talk to fellow members and to the Parole Board but "should be prepared next week to set a date" for the events.
A Bristol Superior Court jury convicted Koonce of first-degree murder in 1992, stemming from a July 20, 1987 incident when he fired a gun out the window of a moving car in New Bedford during a fight between young adults from that city and Brockton, killing Mark Santos.
Koonce, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, testified that he had not aimed at Santos or anyone else but had intended to fire the weapon into the sky.
During his time in prison, according to Baker's office, Koonce has taken advantage of rehabilitation resources and helped launch a restorative justice program at MCI-Norfolk to help other inmates. He earned a bachelor's degree, magna cum laude, from Boston University's prison education program, and has remained active in his church and in employment while incarcerated.
Allen was convicted of first-degree murder in 1997 for his joint participation in a robbery on Feb. 8, 1994. He and another man, Rolando Perry, broke into the Brockton apartment of Purvis Bester, where Perry fatally stabbed Bester.
Perry pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and he was released from incarceration on parole about a decade ago. However, Allen declined to accept a plea for a second-degree murder charge, and he was convicted on a first-degree charge that carried a life sentence without parole.
Robert Jubinville, a criminal defense attorney and member of the Governor's Council, on Wednesday recalled that he represented Allen at his trial. He said he was unsuccessful in his attempts to convince Allen to agree to the deal.
"I couldn't get Allen to take the second. He just said, 'I didn't kill anybody.' I said, I know that, but when you're a joint venturer, whatever he does, you're responsible for, too. Couldn't get that in his head," Jubinville said.
Jubinville said he asked Allen's father to try and sway him, but that, too, fell short.
"He comes out and the father said, 'God will take care of him.' I went, 'Oh my God.' I said, 'The problem, though, is God isn't on the jury,'" Jubinville said in an interview. "He had such a nice smile. He was really a decent kid."
"I couldn't get him to take (the plea), so I had to get elected to the Governor's Council to get him out this way," Jubinville later added.
Several members of the council, including Jubinville, said they visited Koonce and Allen in correctional facilities, commending both for their dispositions and work they did while incarcerated to improve themselves.
"This is what the system's designed to do," DePalo said. "We want this to happen. Rehabilitation, someone who's engaged in a lot of self-improvement, taking advantage of what opportunities there are while incarcerated. I think it's a sign of success for the system."
The state Advisory Board of Pardons reviewed petitions in both cases and recommended that the governor commute the sentences of Koonce and Allen to second-degree murder.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who presides over most Governor's Council assemblies, said Wednesday that the administration's executive clemency guidelines released in February 2020 called for a decision on recommendations within about a year.
Asked about possible opposition from Virginia Santos, the mother of Koonce's victim, Polito replied that administration officials would work with the family "to help them feel as we do that this is the right course of action."
"It's not easy for them, it's not an easy decision for our administration, and yet at the same time, this is what we feel is the right course of action," Polito told reporters.
The commutation recommendations are Baker's first since he took office in 2015 and, if awarded, would represent only the second and third time since the 1990s that Massachusetts officials have commuted an inmate's sentence, according to Governor's Council records.
In decades past, governors pursued commutations at a far higher rate. Between 1973 and 1979, the Governor's Council approved a total of 70 commutation recommendations -- including 16 per year in 1975 and 1978 -- it received from Govs. Francis Sargent, Michael Dukakis and Edward King.
Twenty-five of the commutations in that span were for first-degree murder convictions, and more than two dozen others were for second-degree murder convictions.
Their frequency slowed in the 1980s and 1990s and all but vanished with the turn of the millennium. Before the Council commuted the drug-related prison sentence of Deanne Hamilton in 2014 at the recommendation of Gov. Deval Patrick, the most recent commutation was in 1997, when Gov. Bill Weld secured commutation for first-degree convicted murderer Joseph Salvati.
"It's about time," Duff said of Baker's latest recommendations. "We are wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars every year incarcerating people who really shouldn't be incarcerated. This isn't just great criminal justice and social justice, this is a really great economic move."
Duff recalled that the most recent commutation hearing in 2014 was a "contentious" affair, but said she believes the climate for debate has evolved.
"I think people have grown a lot since then in understanding criminal justice reform, in understanding redemption, in understanding what the purpose of jail and prison really is," she said. "It's not to ruin somebody for the rest of their life."
Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz, who today leads the office that prosecuted Allen, on Wednesday said "a number of changes over the last 27 years required us to revisit whether the sentence imposed at the outcome of Mr. Allen's trial remained just today."
"We consulted with the victim, Purvis Bester's family, and most supported Mr. Allen's commutation request," Cruz said in a statement. "The law of felony murder has changed, and looking at Mr. Allen's growth as an individual, it was undeniable that he took countless steps toward rehabilitating himself and giving back to others. It is a weighty duty to ultimately determine whether Mr. Allen's sentence was to be commuted, and we respect Governor Baker's decision."
Jubinville said he has also heard of support for Allen's commutation from the original prosecutor in the case, Paul Dawley, who is now chief justice of the District Court, as well as former Plymouth County District Attorney Michael Sullivan.
Allen's commutation push had drawn substantial attention ahead of the administration's decision, including support from several members of his victim's family and from New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who on Wednesday declared in a statement, "This accomplishment is the greatest team victory I've ever been a part of."
On Thursday, the Second Chance Justice group and several of Allen's family members plan to host a press conference to discuss the commutation recommendation. They will gather at 28 Custer St. in Brockton, where Allen's father and stepmother live and where Allen plans to reside if he secures parole.