Capitol rally urges Gov. Polis to commute 110-year sentence of truck driver in I-70 crash
‘I want to be able to see my son,’ says mother of Rogel Aguilera-Mederos
Dozens of people gathered outside the Colorado State Capitol Building on Dec. 22, 2021, to rally in support of Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, the truck driver sentenced to 110 years in a crash that killed four people. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)
On April 25, 2019, Rogel Aguilera-Mederos was driving a semitrailer on Interstate 70 in Jefferson County when his brakes failed, according to testimony he later gave investigators.
The ensuing fiery crash killed four people, damaging and destroying 28 vehicles. Though the carnage apparently wasn’t intentional, Aguilera-Mederos faced 41 charges, including vehicular homicide. Aguilera-Mederos was not charged with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
The 26-year-old Cuban immigrant was found guilty of 24 charges and sentenced on Dec. 16 to 110 years in prison.
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His sentence sparked an international outcry and put a harsh spotlight on Colorado’s criminal justice system.
At a rally Wednesday at the Colorado State Capitol, dozens of supporters waved signs bearing the message “#Justice for Rogel” or “Justicia y Libertad.” Aguilera-Mederos’ mother, Oslaida Mederos, spoke to the crowd through sobs.
“Please help me. Please help my son,” Mederos said in Spanish. “I want to be able to see my son.”
During the Dec. 16 hearing, District Court Judge Bruce Jones said Colorado law requires sentences for “crimes of violence” to run consecutively, leaving him no choice but to deliver Aguilera-Mederos the 110-year sentence. A swell of public outrage soon followed.
The same day Aguilera-Mederos was sentenced, the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, announced plans to register a formal complaint with the Colorado Bar Association alleging “gross misconduct” by 1st Judicial District Attorney Alexis King.
“Colorado LULAC deeply regrets the loss of four lives and many others who suffered injuries in this accident,” state director Sonny Subia said in a statement from LULAC. “This steep stretch of the I-70 is long known to be treacherous even to the most experienced truckers. What made this an even more lethal situation was that this was an unseasoned immigrant driver from Cuba who had very little knowledge of our roads and traffic.”
Subia added that LULAC hoped Gov. Jared Polis would commute the “unusually harsh” sentence.
“King abused her authority when she filed numerous criminal charges against Mederos, who was driving a defective vehicle,” LULAC President Domingo Garcia was quoted as saying. “Yet, no criminal liability was assessed against the truck company owner or the person responsible for maintaining the truck’s safety equipment.”
King has filed a motion asking Jones to reconsider the sentence in Aguilera-Mederos’ case, but it’s unclear what the outcome could be.
“I think that, frankly, that (King) got caught flat-footed on this,” former state Rep. Joe Salazar, a Thornton Democrat who spoke at the rally, told Newsline. “They didn’t realize the international public outcry that would ensue as a result of their charging decisions.”
Salazar said he had supported King and called her a “friend.”
“I’m hoping that she sits down with her staff and she starts talking about, ‘Look, we need to be far more thoughtful about our charging decisions than what we have been,'” Salazar said.
‘Shocking and unfair’
A Change.org petition asking Polis to grant Aguilera-Mederos clemency, or commute his sentence, had 4.7 million signatures, and counting, as of Wednesday.
“This case proves the gross inequity in the justice system,” Garcia said. “Historically, the courts treat black and brown defendants more harshly but exonerate whites from culpability. Mederos was made an example for refusing to accept a lesser plea deal because he genuinely believed he had committed no crime.”
Outrage grew Monday when Kayla Wildeman, a deputy district attorney who worked on Aguilera-Mederos’ case, posted a photo of a semitrailer brake shoe on Facebook that she allegedly received as a trophy following the guilty verdict. A screenshot of the post shows the brake shoe has a plaque attached engraved with the words “I-70 Case” and the case number.
“To make any kind of mockery or behave as if this was a ball game of winning and losing is an outrage,” Leonard Martinez, Aguilera-Mederos’ attorney, said in a subsequent statement. “This was about four people losing their lives and another person facing the prospect of a 110-year prison sentence.”
I know everyone has been posting about Rogel Aguilera-Mederos this week. I took a deep dive in it to figure out what the situation is. pic.twitter.com/617xtcGOMK
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) December 21, 2021
Celebrity model and entrepreneur Kim Kardashian West weighed in Tuesday on Twitter.
Kardashian West, an advocate for criminal justice reforms, told her 70 million Twitter followers that Aguilera-Mederos wasn’t drunk or under the influence of drugs when he caused the fatal crash.
“Another shocking and unfair part of this case is that the judge didn’t want to sentence him to such a lengthy sentence,” she added. “However, because of the mandatory minimums in Colorado, his hands were tied. Mandatory minimums take away judicial discretion and need to end.”
Movement toward reform
At the rally Wednesday, state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, said lawmakers are working to develop felony sentencing reforms that would do away with mandatory sentence enhancements like those that Aguilera-Mederos faced.
“When we come back to do our job in January, this is part of our work ahead,” Gonzales said. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed bipartisan legislation to overhaul and restructure misdemeanor sentencing laws, after months of deliberation by the Sentencing Reform Task Force. The group’s next big job: doing the same for felony sentencing jobs.
“The Sentencing Reform Task Force is comprised of people from throughout the criminal justice system,” Gonzales told Newsline. That includes representation from the Department of Corrections, the Parole Board, victims’ rights organizations and organizations serving formerly incarcerated people, plus prominent defense attorney Rick Kornfeld and 20th Judicial District Attorney Michael Dougherty.
“We’ve broken out into different workgroups to address a few things,” she explained. “One, the sentencing grids as to if someone is convicted of a sixth degree or a fifth degree or a fourth degree felony, what should the ranges of sentences be? What should the penalties be for each particular level of offense?”
The work involves going through state laws and mapping offenses onto grids.
“There’s general sentencing, there’s also drug specific sentencing grids, as well as a few other grids,” Gonzales said, “that are important, complicated, nuanced, and require a lot of thought and deliberation.”
While the task force hopes to complete its work on felony sentencing reforms during the 2022 legislative session, Gonzales said it could take longer.
She pointed out that the misdemeanor reform bill she sponsored with Republican Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs was more 300 pages long.
“There’s more nuance and more complication when it comes to felonies,” Gonzales said. “It’s about having those conversations with all of the people impacted so that we get the policy right.”
Meanwhile, LULAC announced Wednesday that Garcia had met with Polis to discuss the possibility of clemency for Aguilera-Mederos.
“We had a very open, frank conversation about a path forward that acknowledges the lives lost, those who were hurt, and what is fair for the man convicted in this tragic accident,” Garcia said in a statement. “Our message to Governor Polis is clear: This is a case of a tragedy being turned into an egregious injustice of Colorado’s criminal court system.”
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