In the United States, Colorado Governor Jared Polis has shortened 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”.
The decision on Aguilera-Mederos’s sentence was among several year-end commutations and pardons issued by Polis on Thursday.
The truck driver will be eligible for parole in five years, the governor said.
The move comes days after a judge scheduled a hearing for January 13 to reconsider the sentence at the request of the district attorney who planned to ask that it be reduced to 20 to 30 years.
More than five million people have signed an online petition seeking clemency for Aguilera-Mederos, who was convicted by a jury in October of four counts of vehicular homicide and multiple counts of assault and reckless driving in the explosive 2019 pileup that killed four people.
Aguilera-Mederos testified that he was hauling lumber when the brakes on his semitrailer vehicle failed as he was descending a steep grade of Interstate 70 in the Rocky Mountain foothills. His truck ploughed into vehicles that had slowed because of another accident, setting off a chain-reaction crash and a fireball that consumed vehicles and melted parts of the highway.
Video from the scene showed cars and trucks engulfed in flames, with fire shooting into the sky, and lumber scattered across the roadway.
Judge Bruce Jones imposed the 110-year sentence on December 13 after finding it was the mandatory minimum term set forth under state law, noting it would not have been his choice.
Prosecutors had argued that as Aguilera-Mederos’s truck barreled down from the mountains, he could have used a runaway ramp alongside the interstate that is designed to safely stop vehicles that have lost control of their brakes.
District attorney Alexis King criticised 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 at a court hearing on Monday had requested that the sentence be reduced to the 20-to-30 year range, arguing that leniency was warranted in the absence of criminal intent.
Defence lawyer James Colgan called King’s move “disingenuous.” “Two weeks ago, they (prosecutors) were perfectly fine with my client getting 110 years until there was a public outcry,” he told the news agency Reuters after Monday’s hearing. “It’s all political.”
The crash killed 24-year-old Miguel Angel Lamas Arellano, 67-year-old William Bailey, 61-year-old Doyle Harrison and 69-year-old Stanley Politano.
The governor said the case would hopefully spur a discussion about sentencing laws, but he noted any future changes would not help Aguilera-Mederos.
Polis said the driver was “not blameless” but the 110 -year sentence was “disproportionate” compared with those who “committed intentional, premeditated, or violent crimes.
“There is an urgency to remedy this unjust sentence and restore confidence in the uniformity and fairness of our criminal justice system, and consequently I have chosen to commute your sentence now,” Polis wrote.
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