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‘You Will Serve Your Just Sentence’: Colorado Governor Cuts Prison Time for Truck Driver Sentenced to 110 Years for Fatal 2019 Crash

Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos in court. Picture of the 2019 crash.

Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos in court, the 2019 crash (via KCNC).

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) has commuted the sentence of the truck driver convicted of causing a horrific 28-vehicle crash that left four people dead and six injured.

Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, 26, was sentenced on Dec. 21 to 110 years behind bars, after a jury convicted him of vehicular homicide, reckless driving, and other charges related to the crash.

He had been hauling lumber down a steep grade on Interstate 70 in Jefferson County, Colorado, when his brakes failed. The truck reached speeds of up to 85 miles per hour before ultimately crashing into stalled traffic, setting off a chain-reaction crash and a fireball that melted cars and parts of the highway.

Prosecutors said Aguilera-Mederos’ failure to use a runaway truck ramp amounted to a crime.

Miguel Angel Lamas Arellano, 24, William Bailey, 67, Doyle Harrison, 61, and Stanley Politano, 69, were killed.

“I believe you deserve clemency for several reasons,” Polis wrote in a letter to Aguilera-Mederos on Thursday. “You were sentenced to 110 years in prison, effectively more than a life sentence, for 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.”

Polis said that Aguilera-Mederos’ “highly unusual sentence” highlighted a “lack of uniformity” between sentences for similar crimes, especially crimes with mandatory minimum sentences.

Polis further explained:

“The length of your 110-year sentence is simply not commensurate with your actions, nor with penalties handed down to others for similar 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. At the end of the day, this arbitrary and unjust sentence was the result of a law of Colorado passed by the legislature and signed by a prior Governor and is not the fault of the judge who handed down the mandatory sentence required by the law in this case. As such, it falls on me to take action to ensure that justice is served in this case, and I am doing so today with this limited commutation.”

Reactions to Aguilera-Mederos’ sentences ranged from skepticism to outrage.

Judge Bruce Jones, expressed mixed feelings at sentencing, saying that while Aguilera-Mederos needed to be held responsible for his actions, he would not have issued a 110-year sentence—the mandatory minimum under current sentencing guidelines—if he had discretion under the law.

Polis himself had come under pressure to take action: more than five million people had signed a petition calling on Polis to commute the sentence.

Even prosecutors wanted the sentence to be walked back; District Attorney Alexis King had recently asked the court to “reconsider” the sentence, and a hearing had been scheduled for January.

King, however, expressed disappointment that Polis intervened, instead of letting Jones determine the appropriate sentence.

“We are meeting with the victims and their loved ones this evening to support them in navigating this unprecedented action and to ensure they are treated with fairness, dignity, and respect during this difficult time,” King said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.

King had previously said that her office would ask that the sentence be reduced to 20 to 30 years.

Polis emphasized that in commuting Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence, he wasn’t absolving him of the jury’s guilty verdict.

“The crimes you were convicted of are serious,” Polis wrote. “Four individuals lost their lives and others were seriously injured because of your bad decisions. The families of these victims will never again have the chance to embrace their lost loved ones.”

Polis also recalled Aguilera-Mederos’ own words at his sentencing hearing, when he said he has often questioned why he survived the crash.

“You have wondered why your life was spared when other lives were taken,” Polis said in his letter. “You will struggle with this burden of this event for the rest of your life, but never forget that because of this event, countless others will struggle with the loss of their loved ones or injuries as well. And you will serve your just sentence.”

Polis also renewed his call for a review of Colorado criminal sentencing guidelines.

“A year ago, I called on the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) to study, discuss, and provide recommendations on, among other things, a guideline approach to structuring dispositions as well as ensuring consistency in the application of sentencing guidelines that mitigate the effects of individual discretion by system actors,” Polis said in the letter. “Now, I am calling on CCJJ again to continue this important work so we can ensure greater consistency in sentencing to prevent future bizarre outcomes like the one in this case.”

Aguilera-Mederos’ commutation was one of more than 1,300 year-end grants of clemency Polis issued Thursday. He granted three commutations, fifteen individual pardons, and signed an executive order granting 1,351 pardons for convictions of possession of two ounces or less of marijuana, according to a press release from his office.

[Images via KCNC screengrab]

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