After Polis commutes trucker’s sentencing, judge criticizes the decision and victims say they don’t feel heard

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
A rally for Rogel Aguilera-Mederos on the Colorado State Capitol steps. Dec. 22, 2021.

When Gage Evans heard about Gov. Jared Polis’ decision to commute the sentence of the Texas trucker who caused a 28-car crash and killed four people, she said smoke came out of her ears.

“It was like a cartoon thing,” she said. “I was so angry.”

Evans, whose husband Bill Bailey died in the pileup, said she didn’t feel heard by the governor who held two Zoom calls with victims before announcing on Dec. 30 that he was going to shorten Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence by 100 years to 10 years.

“Somehow seeing our pain and our anger and our feeling of betrayal I guess did not seem to enter into his thoughts of justice,” Evans said. “He said my job is not to be popular, my job is to do the right thing.” 

'It appears this respect is not mutual'

This week, District Court Judge Bruce Jones had criticism for Polis of his own.

In canceling future hearings for the convicted truck driver, the judge said he didn’t think the governor had a mutual respect for his branch of government.

In a five-sentence ruling issued Tuesday, Jones said he had not received the proper paperwork and notification about the commutation of Aguilera-Mederos but that he learned about it on the news.

“The court respects the authority of the governor to do so,” Jones wrote. “Based on the timing of the decision, however, it appears this respect is not mutual.”

Jones had scheduled a hearing to reconsider Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence for later this month.

The case quickly drew international attention

Aguilera-Mederos was convicted in October of vehicular homicide, assault and attempted assault after he caused a 28-car crash in 2019 that killed four people and injured several others. 

He was sentenced Dec. 13 to 110 years in prison due to the state’s mandatory minimum requirements that crimes of violence — which include assault and attempted assault — yield prison time served in consecutive sentences.

At the time, the judge, the prosecutors and Aguilera-Mederos’ defense attorneys all agreed that the sentence was unfair and too long. 

Jefferson County District Attorney Alexis King moved for a reconsideration and Jones agreed and scheduled a hearing for Jan. 13.

In the meantime, the story took off internationally. A petition yielded more than 5 million signatures calling on Polis to commute or pardon his sentence. Celebrities tweeted about the case. A rally held before Christmas on the trucker’s behalf on the steps of the state Capitol called for changes in Colorado’s sentencing structure.

Polis met with victims of the crash before he commuted the sentence

Polis met with the victims of the crash twice over a Zoom call ahead of his decision, according to two victims of the crash who were on the calls. 

They said they asked him to consider a 20- to 30-year sentence and said they felt the case was misunderstood both by the media and by the international movement fighting on behalf of the trucker. 

The victims also pressed Polis about his timing, they said. Why grant clemency before the hearing to reconsider the sentence?

“That’s the thing he never answered, what is your sense of urgency?” said Kathleen Harrison, who lost her husband of 26 years, Doyle Harrison.

Kathleen Harrison, left, and Gage Evans find some time for friendship and solidarity at the Arvada Public Library on Wednesday. They both lost their spouses in the Interstate 70 crash caused by a Texas trucker in 2019.
Allison Sherry/CPR News
Kathleen Harrison, left, and Gage Evans find some time for friendship and solidarity at the Arvada Public Library on Wednesday. They both lost their spouses in the Interstate 70 crash caused by a Texas trucker in 2019.

Evans said she pressed Polis about justice.

“I said, why is this justice?” she said. “What’s the hurry? What’s wrong with waiting two weeks?”

In his letter to Aguilera-Mederos’ Polis called the original sentence disproportionate.

“You have wondered why your life was spared when other lives were taken,” Polis wrote. “You will struggle with this burden of this event for the rest of your life, but never forget that because of this event, countless others will struggle with the loss of their loved ones or injuries as well. And you will serve your just sentence.”

Harrison said on Wednesday she was disappointed. 

“I didn’t think he would go so low to 10 years because parole is even less,” she said. “That was disrespectful for the justice system and for the victims.”

Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Polis, said in a statement that Aguilera-Mederos is still guilty -- and is being treated that way.

"This individual will go to jail just as others who have committed similar crimes were punished," he said. "A 110 year punishment was totally different than what others who committed similar crimes received. There was an urgency to remedy this sentence and restore confidence in the uniformity and fairness of our criminal justice system."