Governor’s Council to weigh commutation of man convicted of murder

For the first time in 25 years, the Governor’s Council will hold a hearing on Wednesday on whether to approve the commutation of a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder without the possibility of parole.

Thomas E. Koonce, 54, who spent 29 years in prison for the 1987 murder of a New Bedford man, is due to testify at State House before the eight-member board, which is considering a request to commute his sentence from first- to second-degree murder, paving the way for his release by making him eligible for parole.

“I am thrilled that we have the opportunity to talk about a commutation hearing,” said Terrence Kennedy, a member of the governor’s council, who said many witnesses will testify. “I think he’s an ideal candidate for the switch.”

Timothy C. Foley, an attorney representing Koonce, said he plans to call Koonce and seven other witnesses, including Koonce’s son, to testify. He said Koonce was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to appear before the board, the final step in the switch process.

Two weeks ago Governor Charlie Baker approved commutations for Koonce and another prisoner, William Allen, 48, who was convicted of first-degree murder for participating in a fatal armed robbery against a notorious drug dealer in Brockton in 1994. It was the first time Baker had approved a clemency request since taking office in 2015.

The last commutation granted in the state was in 2014 for a woman convicted of distributing cocaine. Before that, the last commutation was in 1997, when Joseph Salvati’s life sentence was commuted after spending 30 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Koonce, a Brockton native, was a 20-year-old off-duty sailor when he shot and killed Mark Santos, 24, in New Bedford as he fled an angry mob after a fight broke out between groups rivals.

Santos’ mother and several relatives said they opposed Koonce’s commutation and believed he should spend the rest of his life in prison.

Baker said he decided Koonce and Allen deserved a chance at parole after spending months weighing the circumstances of ‘two terrible crimes’, the pair’s actions since then and a unanimous recommendation for commutation. by the State Advisory Board on Pardons. Last year.

“The damning information that came from [prison officials] about the kind of personalities and character of these two, the acceptance of responsibility, the hard work they did to master what they did and to try to find a way through their own actions and behaviors of repaying as best they can for what they took – it was virtually universal,” Baker said.

The governor’s council has scheduled a commutation hearing for Allen on Feb. 2. Kennedy said the board plans to vote on Koonce’s and Allen’s commutation requests on Feb. 16.

In July 1987, Koonce was out with friends when a nightclub brawl between rival bands from Brockton and New Bedford quickly escalated as it spilled onto the streets. He was in a car trying to escape an angry, bat-wielding mob when he pulled his gun out the window and fired a single shot, killing Santos, according to trial testimony. After his friend was arrested, Koonce went to the police station with his mother and told the police that he had fired the shot and that he did not want his friend to pay for his mistake.

Koonce told police he feared for his life and fired in self-defense, which means scaring the crowd with a warning shot. His first trial ended with a hung jury. In 1992, an all-white jury convicted Koonce, who is black.

In 2010, the prosecutor who secured Koonce’s conviction testified at a commutation hearing that the case troubled his conscience because he did not believe the evidence supported a first-degree murder conviction. He said he was concerned that Koonce did not receive a fair trial because his attorney did not question potential jurors about racial bias, despite having done so in the first trial.

When the clemency board urged Baker to commute Koonce’s sentence, it cited his “extraordinary commitment to personal improvement and development.” He noted that Koonce had no criminal record, was honorably discharged by the Marines, and that during his decades in prison he had participated in numerous violence prevention programs and recognized evil. caused to the victims and their families.

If the board approves the commutation, the parole board would decide whether or not to grant him parole. The parole board is the same panel as the pardons board that recommended his commutation.

The last commutation hearing the board held for a prisoner serving a life sentence was on January 29, 1997 for Salvati, who had been convicted of a gang murder in 1965. He commuted his sentence and his conviction was later overturned based on evidence that he had been wrongly convicted.

Matt Stout of Globe staff contributed to this report.

Shelley Murphy can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.

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