A judge sentenced a Colorado man to 110 years in prison Monday. He was on trial for causing an accident in 2019: His truck brakes failed, and he crashed into traffic on the interstate, ultimately killing four people.
In October, the jury found Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, now 26, guilty of 27 counts in relation to the accident, including four counts of vehicular manslaughter, six counts of assault in the first degree, and 10 counts of attempt to commit assault in the first degree. He was acquitted on an additional 15 counts.
Though prosecutors conceded that Aguilera-Mederos' brakes stopped working, they argued that he was at fault for the mechanical defect. "There's only two ways this can go: either the defendant didn't catch it like he was supposed to or the defendant drove on his brakes the entire way and caused them to be that way," said Deputy District Attorney Kayla Wildeman, according to a local NBC affiliate. She also told the jury that the driver had failed to mitigate the truck's failure by not taking an off-ramp when he had the chance: "He saw that ramp….He looked at it and said I can baby this down the hill. I can get this down and so he goes past it. And it's not until he sees the traffic that he realizes, 'Oh, crap.' He made a choice. He chose to pass that."
The defense countered that his decision wasn't calculated and that the ramp wasn't readily in view. "Maybe there was some tunnel vision going on here. If anyone has ever been under stress, especially unexpected stress, just think about that for second. You focus on one thing," Aguilera-Mederos' attorney, James Colgan, told the jury. "And if this is the first time you've ever driven it under a period of unexpected stress, it's unfair to say, well you purposefully avoided that runaway ramp. That isn't what happened."
Regardless of whether that's what happened, many will balk at the idea that a man has been sentenced to die in prison for a crime that the state admits was not maliciously intentioned. Among those detractors: Judge A. Bruce Jones, who sentenced Aguilera-Mederos.
"I will state that if I had the discretion, it would not be my sentence," he said Monday, noting that Colorado law requires Aguilera-Mederos to serve some of his sentences consecutively instead of concurrently.
"This is not the first time we've seen or heard a judge say, 'I'm bound by a mandatory sentence that I wouldn't give if I had discretion,'" says Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "I think that should bother everybody."
Well, it didn't seem to bother the prosecutors, who indicted Aguilera-Mederos on a laundry list of charges. While it's unclear whether the state offered him a plea deal, Ring notes that this could be an example of the trial penalty, where the government throws a slew of charges at the wall in hopes that something will stick unless a defendant agrees to forgo his right to trial.
"You can imagine the government, as it does in every case, it tries to resolve through plea negotiations, certainly didn't offer 110 years," Ring says. If you insist on your Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, the charges stay in place, and you end up getting punished much more severely for the same actions. No wonder 97 percent of cases are resolved via guilty pleas.
Aguilera-Mederos' attorney says there were "discussions" around a plea deal, but nothing formal. He declined to share whether it was the state or Aguilera-Mederos who ultimately declined.
Unfortunately for his client, Aguilera-Mederos is now resigned to never again tasting freedom—thanks in part to mandatory sentencing laws that allow no room for nuance. "However reckless or negligent this guy was, there's no claim that he intended to kill anyone," says Ring.