By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) -Colorado Governor Jared Polis on Thursday commuted the 110-year sentence of a truck driver convicted of vehicular homicide, reducing the prison term to 10 years after prosecutors went back to court this week in a rare move seeking leniency.
In a commutation letter to the Cuban-born trucker, Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos, 26, the governor said the fiery crash along a mountain highway that killed four motorists in April 2019 was a “tragic but unintentional act.”
“While you are not blameless, your sentence is disproportionate compared with many other inmates in our criminal justice system who committed intentional, premeditated, or violent crimes,” the letter said.
Aguilera-Mederos, whose case garnered national attention with nearly 5 million people signing an online petition calling for clemency, will now be eligible for parole in five years, the governor said.
Defense lawyer James Colgan said his client was pleased with the news. “He is relieved and very grateful,” Colgan said.
District Attorney Alexis King criticized Polis, saying the governor essentially short-circuited a more deliberative judicial process that prosecutors had begun in consultation with victims’ families and survivors.
“We are disappointed in the governor’s decision to act prematurely,” King said in a statement, adding that a final decision on Aguilera-Mederos’s fate should rest with a judge.
King went to court on Monday for a hearing requesting that the 110-year prison term, imposed under mandatory sentencing rules earlier this month, be reduced to the 20-to-30-year range, arguing that leniency was warranted in the absence of any criminal intent.
Aguilera-Mederos was found guilty by a jury in October on four homicide charges and multiple counts of assault and reckless driving. District Court Judge Bruce Jones said when handing down the original sentence on Dec. 13 that he would not have imposed such a lengthy term but for mandatory minimum penalties required under state law.
At trial, prosecutors presented evidence that Aguilera-Mederos, who was hauling a load of lumber, was improperly trained in driving on mountain roads.
He knew the brakes on his tractor-trailer were failing but descended the mountains anyway, prosecutors said, bypassing a runaway truck ramp and crashing into stopped traffic along Interstate 70 west of Denver when he lost control of the vehicle.
Prosecutors never alleged that Aguilera-Mederos, who had no criminal record, was impaired or had any criminal intent.
At sentencing, Aguilera-Mederos wept as he asked for forgiveness and leniency. “I never thought about hurting anyone in my entire life,” he said.
At Monday’s hearing, Jones said it was virtually without precedent for prosecutors, rather than defense attorneys, to seek a reduced sentence in such a case. Jones ordered both sides to file briefs and set another hearing for Jan. 13, a proceeding apparently rendered moot by the governor’s action.
Earlier this week, Colgan called King’s motion to seek a reduced sentence “disingenuous.”
“Two weeks ago, they (prosecutors) were perfectly fine with my client getting 110 years until there was a public outcry,” he told Reuters after the hearing. “It’s all political.”
The clemency granted by Polis was one of dozens of year-end commutations and pardons announced on Thursday by the governor, a first-term Democrat.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Steve Gorman, Chris Reese and Grant McCool)