by Ashleigh Dye
A Colorado man who was driving a truck when his brakes failed resulting in an accident that killed four people in 2019 was sentenced on December 13, 2021, to 110 years in prison. Rogel Aguilera-Mederos’ harsh prison sentence gained a lot of attention and caused widespread condemnation, and it’s caused many to look at the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The judge who gave him the sentence was the first person to speak out against it. In addition to the judge, District Attorney Alexis King spoke out about the sentence as well. King told reporters that she didn’t believe the punishment was warranted.
In addition to shining a spotlight on the issue of mandatory minimum sentencing, it highlighted in very stark terms the problem with the so-called “trial penalty” plaguing the criminal justice system.
“My administration contemplated a significantly different outcome in this case and initiated plea negotiations but Mr. Aguilera-Mederos declined...,” said King.
While plea deals are now a normal part of the criminal justice system, rejecting them is not. Just three percent of cases reach the courtroom. Most are settled through plea deals. Trials are time consuming, costly, and always present the risk of losing a case, so most district attorneys offer up plea deals to prevent the burden of a trial.
To ensure that defendants take these deals and give up their constitutional right to a trial, prosecutors stack charges on top of charges and emphasize that the defendant will receive significantly more prison time if they do not take the deal. This is known as the “trial penalty.” In most cases when a defendant does go to trial and is convicted, a much harsher sentence is imposed, even though nothing has changed since the plea deal was offered, i.e., the defendant engaged in the same alleged criminal conduct both at the time of plea negotiations and the moment of conviction.
With this in mind, King’s comments reflect a sad truth: Aguilera-Mederos did not receive 110 years in prison because his actions justified it but because he chose to assert his constitutional right and go to trial—that’s the horrific nature of the trial penalty and helps explain why so many people who are factually innocent nevertheless actually elect to plead guilty. This was not justice served but was actually a punishment for exercising one’s Sixth Amendment right.
The prosecutor and the defense agreed that there was no malicious intent on Aguilera-Mederos’ part and that the deaths were a result of brake failure. This may have been why he took his chances with a jury. When sentencing was complete, one juror said he “cried [his] eyes out,” because juries do not know what punishments can be given for crimes.
Prior to his sentence commutation, King pushed for a sentence reduction for Aguilera-Mederos and also reached out to the families of the victims. This brings to light the issue of the emotional response of families having a bearing on criminal sentencing. Is it appropriate to sentence a defendant for the reaction of others? If so, this would mean that if a victim asks for leniency or for charges to be dismissed, that should be considered as well. Yet, we know this is not the case.
The public outcry and criticism even by public officials worked. On January 4, 2022, the sentence of Aguilera-Mederos was commuted to 10 years by Governor Jared Polis. This decision upset both District Attorney King and Judge Jones.
In response to the commutation order, Jones wrote, “The Court respects the authority of the Governor to do so. Based on the timing of the decision, however, it appears this respect is not mutual.”
Two weeks prior to the Governors order, King’s office had released a statement indicating a request for consideration of 20-30 years. Attorney for Aguilera-Mederos, Leonard Martinez, also released a statement saying the 20-30 year recommendation was “still not consistent with the precedent of prior similar cases.”
Over 5 million people signed a petition for clemency, including celebrities such as Kim Kardashian West, and fellow truck drivers launched a campaign on social media using the hashtag #DontDriveColorado, encouraging truckers to voice their opinion by refusing to work in the state.
In the end, things worked out relatively well for Aguilera-Mederos. But what about the many others in the system who do not gain society’s attention and have similarly outrageous sentences imposed upon them for exercising their right to a trial and are severely punished for doing so via the trial penalty? The lesson that people have learned here is not that justice is based on the crime committed but based on whether not a defendant chooses to exercise their constitutional right to trial.
Source: reason.com, remezcla.com
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