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Life Sentences Commuted for Two Massachusetts Prisoners Convicted of First-Degree Murder

by Keith Sanders

On April 21, 2022, the Massachusetts Parole Board voted unanimously to grant parole to state prisoner William Allen, nine days after taking another unanimous vote to parole another Bay State prisoner, Thomas Koonce, on April 12, 2022. Both men were serving sentences for first-degree murder, and their paroles mark the first time in a quarter-century that a first-degree murder conviction has been commuted to second-degree in order to allow the possibility of parole.

The way was initially cleared to release Koonce, 55, and Allen, 48, on February 16, 2022, when the eight members of the Governor’s Council voted unanimously to recommend their clemency petitions. The Council serves to offer advice and consent to the state’s chief executive on matters including judicial appointments, pardons and commutation. When members took up the clemency requests from the two men, the petitions had already received a big boost from GOP Gov. Charlie Baker, being the first he has supported since he took office over seven years ago.

By then Allen had served nearly 28 years for the 1994 robbery and murder of Purvis Bester at his apartment in Brockton. Though he took part only in the robbery, and it was his accomplice, Ronaldo Perry, who fatally stabbed the 42-year-old Bester, Allen was convicted under the state’s felony murder statute, which punishes all involved in a crime resulting in murder as harshly as the actual murderer. Ironically, Perry was paroled more than a decade ago.

Dozens testified before the Governor’s Council in support of Allen’s release, including Devin McCourty, a safety for the New England Patriots NFL team. Allen finally left his cell at the Old Colony Correctional Center in May 2022 and returned home to Brockton, where he will live with his family and work at a local car dealership. He will also volunteer at a prisoner reentry program.

Koonce had been imprisoned 30 years for the fatal 1987 shooting of 24-year-old Mark Santos, whose family wrote to the Parole Board last year indicating they opposed the release. But the board said it considered several factors, including Koonce’s youth at the time of his offence, his prior criminal record, testimony at the hearing and views of the public on the decision. A former U.S. Marine before his incarceration, Koonce became a driving force while incarcerated in establishing a restorative justice program in his Norfolk prison. He also earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston University while serving his time. He was released on electronic monitoring to an initial four-month stay at the Justice Brooke House, where he must abide by a curfew and undergo counseling to adjust to life outside of prison.

Gov. Baker noted that Allen and Koonce’s achievements and work history in prison reflected they had “taken responsibility for their actions and paid their debt to the Commonwealth.” The governor also pointed out that both had already served sentences “longer than most individuals found guilty of similar actions, [and] deserve the right to seek parole from prison.” Both men will remain on parole for the rest of their lives.

“There are more people like Mr. Koonce and Mr. Allen locked up, and they serve society better when they are no longer behind the wall,” said Committee for Public Counsel Services’ Chief Counsel Anthony Benedetti.

According to New York University’s State Clemency Project, Massachusetts is one of only four states with more than 10% of its prisoners serving a life sentence with no parole eligibility. The only hope for their release is clemency. But if the clemency system is not functioning, the researchers say, at least 13% of those prisoners will die behind bars. A former state corrections commissioner called it “a system built on despair,” in which the individual “has very little incentive to do anything but his time.”

In 2017, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court prohibited felony murder convictions—like Koone and Allen’s—from being handed down again absent actual malice. See: Commonwealth v. Brown, 477 Mass. 805 (2017). Gov. Brown’s decision to commute the sentences of the two men gives “hope to hundreds of incarcerated individuals in Massachusetts with pending clemency applications,” said U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-Ma.). A bill she filed in Congress in December 2021 to address a backlog of 17,000 clemency petitions from federal prisoners. H.B. 6234, the “FIX Clemency Act,” remains pending. 

Additional sources: Fall River Reporter, Springfield Republican, U.S. News, WBUR

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Commonwealth v. Brown