BOSTON — After 25 years, a once-common practice returned to Beacon Hill this week with the commutations of two first-degree murder sentences, a move that advocates said can bring hope to others currently serving time in the Massachusetts prison system.

The Governor’s Council on Wednesday, unanimously approved Gov. Charlie Baker’s commutation petitions for William Allen and Thomas Koonce, making them eligible for release after roughly three decades in prison, pending a decision of the Parole Board.

At a press conference at the foot of the Grand Staircase following the vote, attorneys for Allen and Koonce said their clients did not yet know the result — but had been trying to call on the phone.

“I just missed a call from Mr. Koonce myself,” said his attorney Tim Foley, who noted the trouble with cellphone reception inside the State House. “But obviously where Mr. Allen and Mr. Koonce are, we can’t call back immediately, but I’m sure we’ll be having a conversation very soon about the outcome of the vote that the Governor’s Council did today.”

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Koonce, a former U.S. Marine, has been in prison since 1992 on a life sentence without parole for first-degree murder in the 1987 shooting death of Mark Santos of New Bedford. During a Governor’s Council hearing last month, Koonce apologized to the victim’s family and said he took full responsibility for Santos’ killing.

One of Allen’s lawyers, Kristine McDonald, said it’s their understanding that the Parole Board is “prepared to move expeditiously” on a decision, and Allen’s supporters are hoping he is released by summer.

“He’s on his way out. All we’re doing is waiting for one more step, and I believe he’s going to get that step,” said Frances Bynoe, the fiancee of Allen’s father, who said Allen is “most looking forward to a nice dinner” if he is granted parole.

Foley said both men have “been an example to others, and they show that there’s hope within the Department of Corrections,” adding that his client is “excited about coming out and helping people to make sure they don’t make the mistake that he made in life, and to try to prevent that, and to try to help people who have made mistakes to not reoffend.”

‘The door has opened once again’

Anticipating a positive result Wednesday, Allen had prepared a statement — read aloud by McDonald — in which he thanked God and spoke of how the commutation push has given hope to others who are incarcerated.

“You have all given hope to a lot of us throughout the Department of Corrections, because this door has opened once again and everyone is working on themselves so they could be awarded the same opportunity as I have been given today, and that’s all thanks to the wonderful people that had a hand in it,” the statement read.

The commutations of Allen and Koonce were the first to be recommended by Baker since he took office in 2015, and Wednesday’s approval by the eight-member elected Governor’s Council marked the first time since 1997 that first-degree murder sentences have been commuted in Massachusetts.

Commutations were more commonplace in the last century, including 25 commutations for first-degree murder convictions between 1973 and 1979, and another 12 between 1980 and 1997.

The commutation process drew attention in 1998 after convicted first-degree murderer Joseph Yandle, whose sentence was commuted in 1995, confessed in a national broadcast that he had lied about his Vietnam-era service and produced phony military records when he applied for clemency. Following the Yandle uproar, through four different administrations, no commutations were granted for murder convictions. A lone drug-related sentence was commuted in 2014.

“Today marks a historic occasion in Massachusetts history. It has been over 25 years since a life sentence was commuted in the commonwealth,” said Gamaliel Lauture, a community organizer with Brockton Interfaith Community’s Second Chance Justice campaign, adding that by pushing for Allen’s commutation the campaign “stoked the fires of freedom and liberation.”

The Baker administration in February 2020 promulgated new clemency guidelines governing both commutations and pardons. Koonce had his case heard later that year by the Parole Board, which acting as the Advisory Board of Pardons sends recommended clemency bids to the governor’s desk, and Allen went before the board in June 2021.

With more petitions in the pipeline, there could be additional acts of clemency on the way from the governor, who has around 10 months left in office.

In December 2021, the Parole Board interviewed four convicts seeking pardons and a fifth individual seeking a commutation. Another hearing is on deck for later this month, when the board will hear from Bertrand Lamitie and Stephen Polignone who are both seeking pardons.

A Baker spokesman said there are currently no positive recommendations from the Parole Board awaiting action from the governor, and the governor’s office has not received any negative recommendations.

‘Both paid enough’

Around 12 years have passed since Rolando Perry was paroled, Councilor Robert Jubinville said.

Perry is the man who stabbed the victim in Allen’s crime. Accomplices in the home robbery where the murder took place, Perry and Allen were charged as joint venturers in the crime. Perry pleaded to second-degree murder, but Allen, Jubinville said, would not take the deal on the basis that he had not physically killed anyone.

“I find it somewhat strange that 27 years ago when I tried that case for Mr. Allen, I had no idea that I would be sitting on this council,” Jubinville said. ” … Did [Allen] get justice? Well, justice is what it is. You either take the deal that’s offered or you go to trial. And when you go to trial, you’re always at risk.”

While some council members at Koonce’s January hearing questioned his truthfulness about the facts in the 1987 crime, councilors said Wednesday they were not focused on retrying the case in 2022.

Several councilors spoke up before voting Wednesday to say they do not doubt the guilty verdicts in either case but feel that Allen and Koonce paid their debt to society and sufficiently rehabilitated themselves while imprisoned for around three decades.

“As a balancing act, I just can’t — can’t, and won’t — make my vote mean that somebody is going to spend more than 30 years in jail and stay in jail. I believe 30 years in jail is enough. It’s enough for most people that are in the system,” said Jubinville, a criminal defense attorney.

Said Councilor Mary Hurley of East Longmeadow: “My vote here today is not based on ‘woulda-coulda-shoulda,’ or ‘if.’ My vote here today is based on the fact that these two men spent a significant amount of time paying for their crime in terms of their rehabilitation.”

A retired judge, Hurley added that “they’re both cases where young men made mistakes and had to pay for them with sentences that were required by law, but basically the reason they’re out — or going to be able to get out — is because of the fact that they took advantage of opportunities that were presented to them within the prison system.”

“I just want to be clear that I think that both of these men should have been convicted,” said Councilor Terry Kennedy of Lynnfield. “They both committed very, very serious crimes, and young men died as a result of their actions. … It doesn’t mean that they’re innocent of what they did. And they’ve paid a very high price for what they did. But I think they’ve both paid enough.”

In a statement, Gov. Baker called his authority to recommend clemency for incarcerated people “one of the most sacred and important powers of this office.”

“I spent months reviewing these cases, including the circumstances of the two terrible crimes and the actions of the two men since,” Baker wrote. “I believe both men have taken responsibility for their actions and have paid their debt to the Commonwealth by serving sentences longer than most individuals found guilty of similar actions. I thank the Governor’s Council for doing the same and making the right decision.”

Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz, whose predecessors prosecuted Allen’s case in the 1990s, said Wednesday that “developments in the law, forgiveness from victims, and the actions Mr. Allen took that show a fundamental change of character, all played a part in today’s weighty decision.”

“What was considered a just outcome decades ago, warranted reconsideration with the passage of time,” Cruz wrote. “My thoughts today remain with the family of the murder victim in this case, Purvis Bester. I am hopeful that Mr. Allen embraces this rare opportunity to become a productive and positive contributor to society.”

Harrington confirmed as magistrate

The council on Wednesday also unanimously approved Baker’s nomination of Rep. Sheila Harrington to serve as clerk magistrate of Gardner District Court.

The Groton Republican’s departure from the House drops the GOP caucus in that branch to 28 members.

House Clerk Steven James said that Harrington’s resignation from the Legislature was automatic when she joined the judicial branch Wednesday. Less than two hours after the vote, she bid farewell to the House on the chamber floor.

Harrington said that during her time in the House she learned “not to pre-judge, not to pre-determine, how would I feel, or how I would think,” and implored lawmakers to build relationships with colleagues of all political stripes, noting some Democrats with whom she is friends such as Speaker Ronald Mariano and Sen. Jamie Eldridge.

“Do not count them out as friends or trusted advisers because of what you perceive as their ideology and positions on legislation. You will be surprised how much you will learn, and how much you will grow in this position,” the six-term lawmaker said.

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