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Trucker’s sentence in fatal crash spotlights sentencing laws

Workers clear debris from the eastbound lanes of Interstate 70 on April 26, 2019, in Lakewood after a deadly pileup involving a semitruck hauling lumber. A truck driver who was convicted of causing the fiery pileup that killed four people and injured six others was sentenced Monday to 110 years in prison. Rogel Aguilera-Mederos was convicted in October of vehicular homicide and other charges stemming from the crash. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press file)

DENVER (AP) – The 110-year prison sentence meted out Dec. 13 to the truck driver who killed four people when he lost his brakes on Interstate 70 put a renewed spotlight on Colorado’s mandatory-minimum sentencing laws and on district attorneys’ ability to use such laws to ensure convictions lead to prison time.

Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, 26, was sentenced to a prison term twice as long as some Colorado murderers after his convictions triggered provisions in state law that forced District Court Judge Bruce Jones to lay down a minimum 110-year sentence.

Rogel Aguilera-Mederos

The judge said during the sentencing hearing that he had no discretion to set a lesser prison term, though he would have liked to. One family member of a man who died in the fiery 28-car pileup in Lakewood said he did not want a life sentence for the truck driver.

And the day after the sentencing, First Judicial District Attorney Alexis King – who pursued the convictions that led to the 110-year sentence – said in a statement she would “welcome” a reconsideration of the prison term.

Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence stretched to more than a century because under Colorado law, first-degree assault and attempted first-degree assault are so-called “crimes of violence” in which prison sentences must run consecutively, and not concurrently, when they spring from the same incident.

“This is a grossly excessive sentence,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado. “It cries out for the reform of sentencing laws. But I think calls for change also need to be directed at the seldom-criticized but largely unchecked power of prosecutors. They have the power to decide who goes to prison and for how long. Prosecutors decide on the charges to file, and they decide what plea bargains to offer.”

King refused to talk to The Denver Post about the case, which was initially charged under her predecessor, Pete Weir, and instead sent statements through a spokesman.

“The facts and consequences of Mr. Aguilera-Mederos’ decisions that day were extraordinary enough to support pursuing first-degree assault charges,” she said. Aguilera-Mederos refused to accept any plea offer “other than a traffic ticket,” King said, and the convictions recognize the harm caused to victims of the crash.

“My administration contemplated a significantly different outcome in this case, but Mr. Aguilera-Mederos wasn’t interested in pursuing those negotiations,” she said.

Aguilera-Mederos’ attorney, James Colgan, would not discuss what sort of plea bargain was considered, except to say that the discussions “were not fruitful.”

Silverstein said King’s statement suggests the district attorney’s office overcharged the case to try to pressure Aguilera-Mederos into pleading guilty rather than taking the case to trial.

“It’s out of line for the prosecutor to blame the defendant for exercising his constitutional rights,” Silverstein said.

George Brauchler, former district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, disagreed.

“I have little sympathy for someone who turns down a reasonable plea bargain offer, and then goes to trial and bemoans the fact that the worst thing that could happen to them happened,” he said.

Colorado’s mandatory minimums largely were established in the 1990s as a tough-on-crime response to rising crime rates and a perception among conservative politicians that the state’s judges were handing out light sentences, said Stan Garnett, former Boulder County district attorney.

There were concerns that sentences for the same crimes varied dramatically depending on the judge and perhaps on the defendant, Brauchler said.

The laws give tremendous power to district attorneys, Garnett said.

“You can, in the way you charge the case, predetermine what the sentence is going to be, and put an extreme amount of pressure on the defendant to plea,” he said. “It makes it impossible for a judge to fashion a sentence that fits the particular crime and particular defendant.”

Brauchler said the laws ensure that perpetrators of violent crime who harm multiple victims are held responsible with prison sentences for each victim, because the terms must run consecutively.

“This guy killed four people,” Brauchler said. “How much time are four lives worth?”

He added that people convicted of vehicular homicide in Colorado, which carries a recommended sentence of between two and six years in prison, are eligible to be sentenced to probation instead of prison.

“If that was the only charge, vehicular homicide, that guy might have walked out of the courtroom,” he said. “There’s no outcome, using those weak charges, that comes even close to justice. That can’t be justice when you kill four people.”

A jury in October found Aguilera-Mederos guilty of four counts of vehicular homicide, six counts of first-degree assault, 10 counts of attempted first-degree assault, four counts of careless driving causing death, two counts of vehicular assault and one count of reckless driving.

The state’s mandatory-minimum laws have faced criticism in recent years, and some of the state’s minimums have been reduced or removed.

State Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican who sits on the state’s year-old Sentencing Reform Task Force, said Tuesday that he’s looking into Aguilera-Mederos’ case.

“When I saw the story this morning, I thought it was worth making some inquiries of both prosecutors and defense counsel alike as to whether this is an anomaly, whether this is something we ought to deal with and, frankly, to see whether it is something as we’re doing our sentencing reform that could be addressed,” he said.

The task force, formed by Gov. Jared Polis last year to review and suggest changes to the state’s sentencing laws, began its work with misdemeanor cases and has not yet considered reforms to felony sentencing, said Maureen Cain, a task force member and director of legislative policy and external communications for the Colorado Public Defender’s Office. That work should start next year.

Aguilera-Mederos intends to appeal the jury’s verdict, Colgan said, and is also considering a variety of challenges to the sentence, though those challenges will have to wait until the appeal process concludes. An online petition calling for Polis to commute Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence had more than 1 million signatures Wednesday night.

“The law is just so frustrating because it ends up in miscarriages of justice like this,” Colgan said Tuesday. “The law is poorly written.”

The state’s mandatory sentencing law allows for the trial judge to reduce the sentence within 91 days of Aguilera-Mederos’ commitment to the Department of Corrections, after the department evaluates him and submits a report to the judge. The judge must find “unusual and extenuating circumstances” to modify the sentence, the law says – a step Jones implied he’d be willing to take.

Aguilera-Mederos could also ask the court to reconsider the sentence through other legal avenues, Colgan said.

Colgan expects Augilera-Mederos will not be eligible for parole until he is in his 70s or 80s – state law says he must serve 75% of his sentence (that would be about 82 years) before he can be paroled.

That percentage often ends up being closer to 50% of the total sentence once the Department of Corrections applies credits for time served, good time and other measures, Brauchler said.

“Nobody on planet Earth can tell you how many days this guy will serve before he is parole-eligible,” Brauchler said.

Colgan said the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws should be changed to give more discretion to judges.

“(If) you don’t allow the judge to put some humanity into the law, it becomes a rubber stamp and everybody gets sucked in,” he said.