Thomas Koonce, one of two men who received the Bay State’s first commutations for murder in a quarter-century, will soon depart prison after 31 years behind bars.

The Parole Board on Tuesday voted unanimously to award parole to Koonce, a decision that will allow him to return to the community with some conditions in place nearly three decades after a Bristol County jury sentenced him to life in prison without parole for murdering Mark Santos of New Bedford in 1987.

In its decision, the board said Koonce has “taken responsibility for the death of Mr. Santos and has spent his incarceration working towards his rehabilitation,” describing him as “remorseful and empathetic towards the Santos family and the community.”

“He has had an excellent adjustment and has taken extraordinary steps to improve himself and the lives of other incarcerated individuals including initiating Restorative Justice and continuing involvement in the Second Thoughts Program,” the board wrote.


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 “He has been a mentor and facilitator to many in the incarcerated population. Mr. Koonce’s self-development has also included achieving a bachelor’s degree and vocational skills. Much of his rehabilitative work occurred prior to any opportunity for parole.”

Koonce will be required to go to the Criminal Resources for Justice program at Boston’s Brooke House, a transitional residential home for men departing incarceration, for four months as a condition of his parole. He will then be released to an approved family-sponsored or independent living home plan, where he will be subject to electronic monitoring, supervised for drugs and alcohol, expected to comply with a substance abuse evaluation plan, and required to remain home between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

At his commutation hearing in January, Koonce opened his remarks by apologizing to the Santos family, which remained opposed to his commutation request, saying that he knows their lives “will never be the same.”

He also recounted the night out with friends while he was on leave from the Marine Corps that ended in Santos’s murder.

Koonce and his friends became entangled in a fight between groups from New Bedford and Brockton. At one point, Koonce said, he was in a car while several people began bearing down on the vehicle in a threatening manner.

He told councilors that he rolled the vehicle window down and held his gun over his right shoulder while leaning back, intending to fire a “warning shot” to scare off the crowd. At that time, the driver sped away from the curb, Koonce said.

The single bullet he fired struck and killed Santos.

“I take full responsibility for taking his life,” Koonce said of Santos. “My life will be forever dedicated to giving back to society.”

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