Truck driver Roger Aguilera-Mederos faces up to a decade in prison for an April 2019 crash that killed four people in Colorado, but it’s far less than the 110 years applied to his original sentence.
And justice is being better served in the process.
Discussions about “nuclear verdicts” usually focus on cases where fleets are forced to pay crippling multi-million-dollar jury awards after a collision, largely because those sitting in judgement want to send a message to the broader trucking industry. Above all else, they’re looking for someone to pay for an injustice.
Like many of those cases, the idea of sentencing this truck driver to more than a century behind bars was unreasonable by every measure. Aguilera-Mederos’ actions were not premeditated. He didn’t purposefully target anyone in a criminal act. He said his brakes failed on the mountain grade as he careened into traffic on I-70 in Lakewood.
But the price in human lives was enormous. Miguel Angel Lamas Arellano, 24; William Bailey, 67; Doyle Harrison, 61; and Stanley Politano, 69, are dead.
The court itself had little choice in applying the verdict. The 26-year-old driver was convicted of 27 charges including four counts of vehicular homicide. Prosecutors proved that he ignored the 45 mph speed limit and rolled right by a runaway truck ramp. The state’s sentencing guidelines, meanwhile, require consecutive sentences.
According to a report by Reuters, Judge A. Bruce Jones said it would not be the sentence if he had any discretion. Even prosecutors asked for a lower sentence of 20 to 30 years. And more than 5 million people signed a petition at change.org, arguing against the heavy-handed penalty.
Thankfully cooler heads prevailed. Colorado Governor Jared Polis decided the sentence was unjust, commuting it to 10 years and making Aguilera-Mederos eligible for parole in December 2026.
“You were sentenced to 110 years in prison, effectively more than a life sentence, for a tragic but unintentional act,” Polis said in a Dec. 30 letter. “While you are not blameless, your sentence is disproportionate compared with many other inmates in our criminal justice system who committed intentional, premeditated, or violent crimes.
“Four individuals lost their lives and others were seriously injured because of your bad decisions. The families of these victims will never again have the chance to embrace their lost loved ones. This was a tragic event that affected many Coloradans,” Polis said. Though your actions have caused immense pain, I am encouraged by your personal reflection and the commercial vehicle safety changes that were made in the wake of this tragedy to ensure this type of event never happens again.”
Suggesting that such events will never happen again is admittedly pushing things too far – just like the drums in overheating brakes. But measures have emerged to help address some of the root causes behind the crash.
Colorado’s Department of Public Safety is now using in-cab alerts to notify truck drivers about steep grades and locations where runaway truck ramps and brake checks can be found. New inspection tools along the I-70 corridor are being used to help spot overheating brakes when there is still time to make a difference.
That’s really what the justice system is meant to do, isn’t it? Imposed penalties are meant to punish people at fault for a loss, and to deter others from future wrongdoing. They’re supposed to serve as lessons and warnings for those who follow.
Aguilera-Mederos is paying a personal price for the losses that happened while he was behind the wheel. But the best way to serve the memories of those who died in this tragic crash is to commit to lasting change, and a reasonable sentence is part of that.
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