DENVER (KDVR) — District attorneys warned Gov. Jared Polis that he created “a troubling precedent” in commuting Rogel Aguilera-Mederos’ prison sentence while the case was still pending, saying the act weakened public trust in the law.
In a letter to Polis, District Attorneys Michael Dougherty and Daniel Rubinstein — a Democrat and a Republican, respectively — agreed that the 110-year sentence in the deadly interstate crash “was too severe.” But they stressed that by commuting the sentence to 10 years before a judge could weigh in, he sidestepped the system.
“That sentence is far too low for someone who kills four people in the appallingly reckless way in which Mr. Aguilera-Mederos chose to do so,” the letter reads. “As we look to the future, though, our greatest concern is that you chose to intervene in a pending case, thereby undermining the integrity and confidence that Coloradans place in the justice system.”
Polis’ office releases statement
Polis’ office released the following statement on Wednesday morning:
“Governor Polis is a problem-solver and when he saw a problem like a bizarre 110-year sentence that undermined confidence in our criminal justice system, he used his legal authority to step in and fix it. Governor Polis has been clear about his thoughtful process and evaluates each clemency application individually, understands the weighty responsibility that comes with each decision and follows the law in making a decision. The Governor looked at this bizarre sentence and while there were many folks across Colorado and the country that wanted the Governor to do a complete pardon, he did not consider a pardon or full commutation of the sentence and brought the sentence in line with how others have been punished for similar crimes. The individual is guilty and is serving his sentence. There was clearly an urgency to remedy this sentence and restore confidence in the uniformity and fairness of our criminal justice system. Let the punishment fit the crime is a basic tenant of justice, and Coloradans are relieved to know that the punishment now fits the crime in this case.”Gov. Jared Polis’ office
Rogel Aguilera-Mederos: The facts of the case
In 2019, Aguilera-Mederos was driving an 18-wheeler through the mountains on I-70, and his brakes failed as he traveled east toward the metro. He ultimately crashed into more than two dozen stopped vehicles and four semitrailers in Lakewood, killing four people and hurting at least 10 more.
The district attorneys outlined some of the factors they said led to Aguilera-Mederos’ conviction:
- He failed multiple parts of the driving exam numerous times, lied on employment applications with trucking companies and had previously been fired by a trucking company.
- Before the crash, he disabled safety monitors and manipulated driving logs, hiding how long or fast he drove, stopped and rested.
- He had been speeding and driving dangerously for hours before the crash.
- His brakes had gone out long before the crash, causing him to pull over on the highway because of it. He disobeyed a supervisor who told him to wait for the required cooling and assessment of the brakes and went back to driving a few minutes later.
- He failed to use the runaway truck ramp, honk his horn and flash his lights to warn drivers.
- Just before the crash, he swerved into traffic to avoid another big rig pulled over on the side of the highway, testifying that he was afraid the impact would kill him.
“He put his interests above those of others at every moment leading to, and including, the crash,” the district attorneys wrote.
Aguilera-Mederos was convicted of 27 counts, including vehicular homicide, in October. His 110-year sentence was the result of mandatory minimum sentencing laws that apply to crimes of violence, or any offense in which a person is killed or suffers serious bodily injury.
The sentence, handed down Dec. 13, stoked outrage around the globe and an online campaign for commutation. On Dec. 30, Polis used his gubernatorial power to drop the sentence to 10 years. It happened just two weeks before a scheduled resentencing hearing was set to begin.
“To intervene prior to allowing the judge — who heard every witness, saw all the evidence and knew the case better than anyone — to exercise his statutory authority, was unprecedented, premature and unwarranted,” the letter reads. They said they were unaware of a governor ever intervening in a pending case.
DAs say commutation is impacting cases
Dougherty represents the 20th Judicial District, in Polis’ home county of Boulder. Rubinstein represents the 21st Judicial District that includes Mesa County. Both serve on the Sentencing Reform Task Force, which is looking at the “issues underlying the sentencing options in the Aguilera-Mederos case,” according to the letter.
They said the governor’s action is impacting the courts. In Boulder County, a plea offer to a family member accused of sexually assaulting a little girl would require an eight-year prison sentence. But the defense attorney argued the offer “is excessive,” pointing to the Aguilera-Mederos case.
The two said they wrote the letter in advance of meeting with the governor at the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council meeting.