30 years after life sentence, Thomas Koonce has chance at life outside prison

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Thomas Koonce, recipient of a rare first-degree murder commutation from Gov. Charlie Baker, may be one step closer to a life outside prison after spending three decades behind bars.

“I can only hope and pray you’ll agree I am a strong candidate for parole,” Koonce said as he sat shackled before the state Parole Board Thursday. “I will always be reminded of the harms I caused.”

Koonce, 54, is up for parole after having his 1992 first-degree murder conviction commuted to a second-degree sentence earlier this year. The Brockton native and Marine Corps veteran has served more than 30 years in prison for shooting and killing New Bedford man Mark Santos during a late-night confrontation in 1987.

A crowd of nearly 60 supporters literally backed up Koonce during his 2.5-hour hearing, testifying to his rehabilitative work while in prison, personal character, and devotion to his faith.

“Everything that Thomas has done has been motivated by that core belief. You can’t fake that for 30 years,” said witness Miguel Angel Reyes.

Reyes was one of Koonce’s many students at MCI-Norfolk, where he leads a Restorative Justice program helping prisoners process the actions that landed them behind bars and reconcile with their futures.

He was paroled in 2014 and is now offering to house Koonce if the board grants him freedom. His wife, Lydia, sat by his side as he told the board Koonce was “one of the most influential” people in his life.

Members of the board commended Koonce on his determined efforts to right his life, but pressed him on everything from his plans for future employment to the night of his crime.

Koonce said Santos’ death was the tragic result of a warning shot he fired from inside a car at the end of a night out with friends. At 20 years old, Koonce felt intimated by a group of guys down the street, and was legally licensed to carry.

Board Chairman Gloriann Moroney asked him whether he takes responsibility for shooting his gun and Santos’ death, to which he responded, “absolutely.”

“I’m adamant about living to honor his life,” Koonce said, and apologized to the victim’s family multiple times. although they declined to attend the hearing.

Koonce’s son, Thomas Andrews, told the board he looked forward to the possibility of knowing his dad on the outside. Andrews was just one month old when Koonce went to prison.

“For a long time I was looking for a reason to hate him and he never gave me one,” he said.

The board will reconvene to decide on Koonce’s parole after a two-week period. Between 1997 and 2021, the Commonwealth only commuted one sentence, for a 2014 drug conviction.

“There are some people in life who deserve a second shot,” said Koonce’s friend from time served, Pat Tracy.

 

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