The eight-member Governor’s Council made history on Wednesday by approving Gov. Charlie Baker’s commutations for two men, giving them the chance for parole after decades behind bars.
The group voted unanimously, changing Thomas Koonce and William Allen’s first-degree sentences to second-degree, making them eligible for parole.
Allen, 48, has served 27 years in prison following a 1997 conviction for the murder of Purvis Bester, which Allen was present for but did not himself commit.
Allen's attorney, Patty DeJuneas, read a statement he emailed her yesterday to thank Baker and the Governor’s Council.
“I also want to thank everyone that believed I should have a second chance to try to amend the harm I caused our community,” wrote Allen. “You all have given hope to a lot of us throughout the department of corrections, because this door has opened once again, and everyone is working on themselves so they can be awarded the same opportunity as I’ve been given today.”
At his Feb. 2 hearing before the Governor’s Council, councilors referred to the night of the crimes, but said Allen's actions in the decades since swayed them toward voting in favor of his commutation. Supporters testified about how Allen volunteered for a companion program to help people with severe mental disabilities, and how he helped de-escalate potentially dangerous situations.
Allen spoke during the last hour and, unprompted, expressed his remorse before responding to councilors' questions. “There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about my actions and the fact that Mr. Bester’s family had to bury their loved one,” he said, asking for a moment of silence for Bester. Members of Bester’s family had previously told the parole board they’d support a commutation of his sentence.
In 1994, Allen and Rolando Petty drove to Bester’s Brockton apartment with a plan to rob him. Allen held several women at knifepoint in one room and demanded money, while Perry stabbed Bester in another room, which Allen said he didn't know was going to happen. While Allen refused a plea deal, Perry pled guilty to second-degree murder, served time and was released on parole in 2011.
“We are just thrilled that it was unanimous. We promised the governor's council that William is going to make them proud,” said DeJuneas. “He'll make us proud and he's going to continue to do good works once he's released.”
Koonce, 54, was convicted in 1992 for the death of Mark Santos of New Bedford as a result of an altercation in 1987, with no chance of parole.
Koonce went to a nightclub in Westport with three other men while home from his time on the U.S. Marine Corps in July 1987. A fight broke out between his group and another from New Bedford, so his group left.
Later in the evening, the two groups came to a head outside of a party. In the middle of the confrontation, Koonce pulled out a .22-caliber pistol, and fired out a passenger window. The shot hit Santos and killed him. Koonce maintains that he meant to shoot the gun over the crowd instead of into it.
Koonce was incarcerated in 1987 and 1988 before posting bail, and went back to the Marine Corps, but was incarcerated again in 1992 after a second trial. The first in 1991 ended in a hung jury.
At his January commutation hearing before the council, Koonce said he takes full responsibility for the shooting. He told the board, “I’m not the same 20-year-old that pulled the trigger and made some very bad decisions that night.”
Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn, who has led the office since 2015, told the council in January that the commutation would be “a just and appropriate result.”
The Santos family wrote a letter to Baker asking for Koonce to remain incarcerated for life.
On Wednesday, Tim Foley, an attorney for Koonce, said his client is grateful to the council and is keeping the Santos family in mind.
“I know that Mr. Koonce is eligible for parole. And [he is] always keeping in mind the victim’s family, the Santos family, and our prayers go out to them on a day that's probably difficult for them. But Mr. Koonce hopes to prove to them that he is worthy of this decision today,” Foley said in call.
The approvals of Baker's commutations are the first by the Council since 2014, when Deanne Hamilton’s drug-related sentence was commuted, and the first murder-related sentence in 25 years.
The men must now go before the parole board, whose members also serve on the Advisory Board of Pardons, which approved their commutation pleas back in the fall. It is likely they will be released before July 1.
DeJuneas said Baker’s counsel office told her the parole board will expedite the process and reconvene in March.