Alana Casanova-Burgess: I'm Alana Casanova-Burgess filling in for MHP. Glad you're with us. In April 2019, Rogel Aguilera-Mederos was driving a semi-truck on Interstate 70 in Denver, Colorado when his brakes failed. He crashed into stopped traffic, killing four people and injuring more. Earlier this month, a Colorado judge sentenced the 26-year-old truck driver to 110 years in prison. That's one, one, zero, 110, more than a century behind bars. The judge said he had little choice because of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws in Colorado.
Judge: If had the discretion, it would not be my sentence.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Aguilera-Mederos is a Cuban immigrant who had been working out of Houston at the time of the crash. Here's his statement during the sentencing.
Rogel Aguilera-Mederos: My life has been very difficult, sad, depressing, terrible, bad since April 25th, 2019. I know that it has been heartbreaking for everyone involved in this tragedy.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: In response to that sentencing, nearly 5 million people have signed a change.org petition calling on Colorado Governor Jared Polis to grant clemency or commutation as time served. Even Kim Kardashian tweeted about the case. Advocates for Aguilera-Mederos are calling this a tragic accident, not a criminal act. Other truck drivers around the country are showing solidarity on social media with the hashtag No Trucks to Colorado, saying they will not drive through the state in protest.
Truck driver 1: [foreign language]
Truck driver 2: You just took this kid's whole lot away over an accident. That's all I got, man. That's ridiculous. You know what? This truck ain't never been to Colorado, not while I've been driving it, and it ain't going to Colorado, period.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: The Jefferson County district attorney who pursued the charges is now asking the judge for reduced sentencing, which would likely be 20 to 30 years. A hearing is scheduled for January 13th. With me now is Allison Sherry, justice reporter at Colorado Public Radio. Welcome to the show.
Allison Sherry: Hi, Alana.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Can you walk us through what happened in the crash and what prosecutors are saying? What the defense said happened?
Allison Sherry: Yes. He was driving from Wyoming to Texas with a big truck full of lumber. He was coming down the hills from the mountains, which is a pretty steep grade. There's actually runaway truck ramps on I-70 for trucks to get off if they lose their brakes. Prosecutors say he was driving erratically for a while. It wasn't just when he lost his brakes, that he had been recklessly driving through the mountains, they have cameras and that sort of thing. Defense says, when he lost his brakes, he panicked, he did drive by a runaway truck ramp, but he didn't see it, he didn't know what to do. He was switching lanes trying to get around different vehicles.
He had planned to, when he came down the hill, go into the shoulder and just drive it out that way, because it does eventually get flat once you get into the city, but there was another truck pulled over on the shoulder doing something. In order to avoid that truck, he ended up just hugging the wheel and crashing into 28 cars, killing four people and injuring a number of others.
He was asked at the time by the police, why he didn't go into the grassy median, which would've obviously avoided the vehicles. He said he didn't want to roll the truck. I think defense would characterize him panicking, and prosecutors would characterize him having a great responsibility being a truck driver with a commercial driver's license and him making a series of bad decisions that killed people.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: How did he end up with 110 years as a sentence?
Allison Sherry: That's a product of the mandatory minimums in Colorado. He was charged with first-degree assault and attempted assault on the people he killed, which are crimes of violence. Vehicular manslaughter, he was also charged with that, but that would not necessarily require prison time. Because he was convicted of the assault charges, both attempted and actual assault charges, those are mandatory sentences and they must be served consecutively, not concurrently. At the time the judge said, "Look, I don't really have much of a choice in sentencing you to this." He didn't agree with the number, but because those charges were filed under the crimes of violence statute, they didn't have much of a choice.
These charges were filed probably, I don't know, because if a former DA filed these charges back in 2019, there's a new DA in that district now. That former DA not giving interviews about his decisions at the time, because I've been covering this for a while, I would assume the DA probably filed those assault charges because he wanted some prison time for this person, because vehicular manslaughter might not have any prison time at all, but I'm not sure. The result was this really large, large sentence.
What's unclear to me and that the current DA is not giving interviews because the case is still technically open is why the DA who prosecuted the case in real time in October didn't know that this could be a prison sentence, that this could be a result of what's going to happen. I think law enforcement would say there is this relief valve. You have this huge sentence, but there's a way to go to a judge and ask for a reconsideration, which is what's happening now.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: This case, as I mentioned, has gone viral organically. Has there been any organizing efforts to get truckers activated on this case?
Allison Sherry: I think truckers have activated on TikTok and on social media, on this case. There was a rally covered right before Christmas on behalf of the trucker to try to reduce his sentence or get the governor to give him clemency. The rally was held on the steps of the capital. There were a number of truckers who drove by honking in support during the time.
I think most of the big organization has taken place on change.org, which garnered almost 5 million signatures so far for clemency on this sentence, and the truckers saying they're going to boycott. I will say, no one has noticed any supply chain disruptions in Colorado. It's unclear whether that's happened yet. I think because this sentence is still being considered, it's possible they're waiting to see what really happens since we're still in the middle of this story. I know a lot of people are very upset.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Is Colorado a major trucker route? Would that boycott be meaningful economically to the state?
Allison Sherry: Yes. East-West Interstate 70 runs through from California to the East Coast, and North-South Interstate 25 runs all the way through. That comes up from Texas, from Mexico all the way up to the Canadian border. If truckers decided to avoid I-25 or Interstate 70 through Colorado, there are obviously alternate routes through Wyoming or New Mexico or Arizona, but that would be a pretty big deal.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: With all of this attention on the case and it being so high profile, are lawmakers expected to address sentencing guidelines?
Allison Sherry: Yes, there is a sentencing reform task force that's already said that they're going to look at this right away when the legislature starts to meet in January. I think they really want a couple of things. They want more discretion from judges and they also want more transparency. Even some of the liberal and progressive Democrats in the legislature say the sentencing laws currently are just really random. If you are convicted of vehicular manslaughter, you get a certain sentence in one place and a judge could give you a certain sentence in another, that there's no certainty.
If you're going to serve five years or you're going to serve seven years, you'll serve 30% of that sentence and then be eligible for parole or something like that. There's not really any certainty there. No one really knows how long someone's going to go to prison. I think even in this case, some people have said, "Look, he wouldn't serve 110 years. He'd be up for parole. If he had good behavior, he could probably get out in 30," but no one really knows that. I think having some clarity and some transparency in the system, both for the people who are involved in the criminal justice system and victims, is what the legislature is hoping to accomplish.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: There's been a formal application filed for clemency to the governor of Colorado. Has the governor responded?
Allison Sherry: He has said he will expedite consideration of this request for clemency, but he has been very silent since then. Actually, in previous years, governors have traditionally given clemency on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to people who filed for their certain cases. He did nothing this year. He didn't touch any application, including the trucker's. He may be waiting to see what the judge does.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Thank you so much. Alison Sherry, justice reporter at Colorado Public Radio.
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