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Sentencing of truck driver in I-70 crash sheds light on sentencing laws

The law around mandatory sentences for violent crimes in Colorado, experts say, played a role in the length of Rogel Aguilera-Mederos' sentence.

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — After the sentencing of Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, who was convicted for the crash on I-70 that killed four people, a petition was started to have Democratic Governor Jared Polis commute his sentence. 

Aguilera-Mederos was sentenced to 110 years in prison. 

The petition itself has gained more than 2 million signatures as of Thursday night. 

A spokesperson for Governor Polis' office said to 9NEWS in a statement, "We are aware of this issue, the Governor and his team review each clemency application individually." However, it is not known if a clemency application had been submitted. 

As for the length of the sentence, Judge Bruce Jones said his hands were tied.

"In all victim impact statements I read, I did not glean from them someone saying, 'He should be in prison for the rest of his life, and he should never, ever get out," Jones said during the sentencing this week. "Far from it. There was forgiveness reflected in those statements, but also a desire that he be punished and serve time in prison, and I share those sentiments."

Experts like Ian Farrell, an associate professor from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, say there are several factors that went into the length of the sentencing, and it revolves around Colorado's law on mandatory sentences for violent crimes. 

Credit: FILE
The courtroom during the sentencing of Rogel Aguilera-Mederos.

"So the way that sentencing works in Colorado is that depending on, for example, which class of felony you have been convicted of, that gives the court a a sentencing range," he said. 

But in Colorado, if you're convicted of a "crime of violence," that extends the minimum sentence for each offense, Farrell explained. 

"And each of them individually might have, say, a four year minimum, or because it's a crime of violence, an eight year minimum. But when you add that up consecutively over this number of charges, you get what is effectively a life sentence," he said. 

Another factor he says is that prosecutors, not the judge, have the power in deciding what to charge the defendant with in this case. 

"And so if they had chosen to charge fewer offenses, then this long punishment would not have been possible," Farrell said. "One way to think about this is that it's taking power away from the court, taking power away from the judge and effectively giving it to the prosecutor. And I believe that that is problematic because prosecutors are not neutral, right, they are attempting to convict somebody. And my sense of the way that a lot of prosecutors work is that they will try to get the most number of charges and the highest sentence or longest sentence possible, whereas that is not the role that a judge had."

The charges filed in this case were initially filed by a previous Jefferson County district attorney.

However, District Attorney Alexis King carried out the case with the charges presented. When asked if she agreed with the charges filed, and if not, why she didn't withdraw initial charges and file new ones, she responded in a statement saying, "The facts and consequences of Mr. Aguilera-Mederos' decisions that day were extraordinary enough to support pursuing first-degree assault charges. Ethically, we do not – nor can we – pick and choose between victims, and the jury’s thoughtful verdict in this case reflects the strength of the evidence presented and recognizes the harm caused to them."

In part, King said in a statement that she and her team requested the minimum sentence "allowable by law," and that they "contemplated a significantly different outcome."

King said in the statement that her office initiated plea negotiations "but Mr. Aguilera-Mederos declined to consider anything other than a traffic ticket." 

Credit: FILE
Rogel Aguilera-Mederos in the courtroom during his sentencing trial.

This case, Legal Director for ACLU Colorado Mark Silverstein says, sheds light on the need for laws to change. 

"The prosecutor's statement, I think, is close to an admission of something that criminal defense lawyers all know, and that is that prosecutors routinely pile on what's essentially overcharging or heavy charges, higher number of charges more than they think is just or necessary. And they do this to intimidate defendants into giving up their constitutional right to a trial," Silverstein said. "But I do think that we do need to pay more attention to the, I think, seldom noticed, seldom criticized power of the prosecutors because they are the ones who are deciding how long people spend in jail and who spends time in jail and for what charges. And prosecutors would have the power, I think, to reduce the, what I think is the overly harsh system of punishment that we have going on right now in Colorado and the rest of the country. There are far too many people doing far too much time in our prisons."

There is a way that Aguilera-Mederos' sentencing could have a chance to be reduced. 

According to the Colorado statute on mandatory sentences for violent crimes, within 91 days that Aguilera-Mederos is admitted to the Department of Corrections, the department has to file a report on his evaluation. 

To which the court, in a case "Which it considers to be exceptional and to involve unusual and extenuating circumstances, may thereupon modify the sentence, effective not earlier than one hundred nineteen days after his or her placement in the custody of the department."

In the meantime, Republican State Senator Bob Gardner of El Paso County has already said that he will be looking into the sentencing himself. 

Gardner is also on the state's Sentencing Reform Task Force, which he says is now reviewing felony sentencing laws. 

"I'm interested in how this has played out," he told 9NEWS over the phone. "I have asked prosecutors and defense counsel to give me some feedback on, is this case something of an anomaly?"

Gardner, who says he supports mandatory minimum sentences in general, but also supports discretion on the part of trial court judges to award appropriate sentences, says he wants to better understand if this particular instance is something they should at least look into. 

"So criminal sentencing is something that legislators and the General Assembly need to be looking at all the time to see if they're consistent with public experience, the sense of our communities at what's appropriate, and how those statutes actually are applied in the court cases," he said. "I want to understand more about this case and how the sentencing is played out versus every other case with mandatory minimum sentences. It's important if we want to consider a legislative change that we do so in a way that we don't for this one single case, change an entire policy, which works generally well."

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