The 110-year jail sentence this week for a truck driver who killed four people when he lost brakes on Interstate 70 has brought renewed attention to Colorado’s mandatory minimum punishment laws and the ability of district attorneys to use such laws to enforce conviction. lead to imprisonment.
Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, 26, was sentenced to prison terms twice as long as some Colorado killers after his conviction led to state law provisions that forced District Court Judge Bruce Jones to impose a 110-year minimum sentence.
The judge said during Monday’s hearing that he did not have the discretion to impose a shorter prison term, although he would like to do so. One of the man’s family members, who died in a 28-car fire in Lakewood, said he did not want a life sentence for the truck driver.
And the day after the sentencing, First District Attorney Alexis King, who pursued sentences leading to a 110-year sentence, said in a statement that she “welcomes” the revision of her prison sentence.
Aguilera-Mederos’ verdict stretches for more than a century because, under Colorado law, first-degree assault and attempted first-degree assault are so-called “violent crimes” in which prison sentences must be executed in sequence, rather than simultaneously when they occur. from the same incident.
“This is an extremely overwhelming sentence,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU in Colorado. “He’s calling for reform of sentencing laws. But I think the calls for change should also target the rarely criticized but largely uncontrolled power of prosecutors. They have the right to decide who goes to prison and for how long. The prosecutor’s office decides on the charges brought against and decides which plea bargain to propose. “
King refused to tell The Denver Post about the case, which was originally indicted under her predecessor Pete Weir, and instead sent statements this week through her spokesman.
“The facts and the aftermath of Mr. Aguilera-Mederos’ decisions that day were extraordinary enough to warrant a charge of assault in the first degree,” she said. According to King, Aguilera-Mederos refused to accept any plea of guilt “other than traffic fines,” and the sentences acknowledge harm to the victims of the accident.
“My administration envisioned a significantly different outcome in this case, but Mr. Aguilera-Mederos was not interested in continuing these negotiations,” she said.
Aguilera-Mederos’ lawyer, James Colgan, did not discuss what type of plea bargain was being considered, except that he said the discussions were “not fruitful.”
Silverstein said King’s statement said the district attorney’s office had inflated the price to try to get Aguilera-Mederos to plead guilty rather than bring the case to trial.
“It is unacceptable for the prosecutor to accuse the defendant of exercising his constitutional rights,” Silverstein said.
George Brauchler, a former District Attorney for the 18th Judicial Circuit, disagreed.
“I have little sympathy for those who turn down a sensible plea and then stand trial and mourn the fact that the worst thing that could happen to them has happened,” he said.
Mandatory consecutive sentences
Mandatory minimums in Colorado were largely set in the 1990s as a tough reaction to rising crime and the perception by conservative politicians that state judges were giving lenient sentences, said Stan Garnett, a former Boulder County District Attorney.
Brauchler said there have been concerns that sentences for the same crimes vary widely from judge to judge and possibly from the accused.
According to Garnett, laws give district attorneys enormous powers.
“You can determine in advance what the verdict will be in the way you accuse the case, and put strong pressure on the defendant to plead guilty,” he said. “This makes it impossible for a judge to issue a verdict that is appropriate for a specific crime and a specific accused.”
Brauchler said the laws ensure that perpetrators of violent crimes who have harmed multiple victims are held accountable with a prison sentence for each victim, as the sentences must be followed consistently.
“This guy killed four people,” Brauchler said. “How long are four lives worth?”
He added that people convicted of a car murder in Colorado, which is recommended between two and six years in prison, could be sentenced to probation instead of jail time.
“If it had been the only charge – a car murder, this guy could have walked out of the courtroom,” he said. “There is no outcome using these weak charges, not even close to justice. When you kill four people, it cannot be justice. “
In October, a jury found Aguilera-Mederos guilty on four counts of car murder, six counts of first-degree assault, ten counts of attempted first-degree assault, four counts of reckless driving resulting in death, two counts of assault in a car and one count. reckless driving.
Chance to reduce punishment
In recent years, state mandatory minimum laws have been criticized, and some of the state minimum requirements have been reduced or removed.
State Senator Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican who is part of the State’s Sentencing Reform Task Force a year ago, said Tuesday that he is looking into the Aguilera-Mederos case.
“When I saw this story this morning, I thought it was worth inquiring with both prosecutors and defenders if this is an anomaly, should it be dealt with and, frankly, see if it is an anomaly. something because we are doing a sentence reform that could be resolved, ”he said.
The task force, formed by Gov. Jared Polis last year to review and propose changes to state sentencing laws, has begun its work with misdemeanor cases and has yet to consider reforms to felony sentences, said Maureen Kane, a member of the task force. and Director of Legal Policy and External Communications for the Colorado Public Defender’s Office. This work should begin next year.
According to Kolgan, Aguilera-Mederos intends to appeal the jury’s verdict, and is also considering a number of objections to the verdict, although these objections will have to be postponed until the appeal process is completed. An online petition urging Polis to commute Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence garnered over 1 million signatures Wednesday night.
“The law is so disappointing because it leads to similar miscarriages of justice,” Colgan said on Tuesday. “The law is badly written.”
The state’s mandatory sentencing law allows a trial judge to commute a sentence within 91 days of Aguilera-Mederos’s appeal to the Department of Corrections after the department has assessed Aguilera-Mederos and submitted a report to the judge. The judge must find “unusual and mitigating circumstances” to change the sentence, the law says – a step Jones had implied on Monday he would have been willing to take.
According to Kolgan, Aguilera-Mederos could also apply to the court to review the verdict using other legal means.
Colgan expects Augilera-Mederos will not be eligible for parole until he turns 70 or 80 – state law says he must serve 75% of his sentence (that is, about 82 years) before he can will be parole.
This percentage often approaches 50% of the total sentence, Brauchler said, if the Department of Corrections applies credits for time served, good time and other measures.
“No one on planet Earth can tell you how many days this guy will serve before he qualifies for parole,” Brauchler said.
Colgan said the state’s mandatory minimum penalty laws should be changed to give judges more leeway.
“(If) you don’t allow the judge to bring some humanity into the law, it will become a rubber stamp,” he said, “and it will suck everyone in.”