Crime

Trucker Given 110 Years for Fatal Crash Innocent, Deserves Pardon, LULAC Says

Rogel Aguilera-Mederos during an April 2019 court appearance.
Rogel Aguilera-Mederos during an April 2019 court appearance. CBS4 via YouTube
The League of United Latin American Citizens, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that calls itself the "largest and oldest Hispanic organization in the United States," has weighed in on behalf of trucker Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, who's been sentenced to 110 years in prison for causing a crash on Interstate 70 that killed four people.

Meanwhile, a wave of support for Aguilera-Mederos is gathering online. Since his sentencing on December 13, a Change.org petition titled "Offer commutation as time served, or grant clemency to Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos" has collected nearly 2.7 million signatures.

LULAC argues that Aguilera-Mederos is innocent of the 27 charges for which he was found guilty, and calls on Governor Jared Polis to pardon him or commute his sentence. In a December 16 announcement, the League says that it's "working on registering a formal complaint of gross misconduct with the Colorado Bar Association against First Judicial District Attorney Alexis King for abuse of power and official oppression under the color of law in filing charges against an innocent truck driver who was behind the wheel when his truck’s brakes failed."

 "We are aware of this issue," Polis press secretary Conor Cahill says. "The governor and his team review each clemency application individually."

"The sentence — which our office requested the minimum for — is within the purview of the court and reflects the judgment of the legislature," says King, who didn't actually file the charges against Aguilera-Mederos (that was her predecessor, Peter Weir). Her official response notes that "just as the law mandates this outcome, it also provides future opportunity to revisit the sentence."

The April 25, 2019, crash killed 24-year-old Denver resident Miguel Angel Lamas Arellano; Doyle Harrison, a 61-year-old from Hudson; 67-year-old Arvada resident William Bailey; and Stanley Politano, a 69-year-old who was also from Arvada. Aguilera-Mederos was taken into custody and hit with what eventually grew to 41 criminal charges.
click to enlarge The crash scene. - DENVER7 VIA YOUTUBE
The crash scene.
Denver7 via YouTube
After a series of delays, his trial finally got under way this fall. Prosecutors portrayed Aguilera-Mederos as reckless, while the defense team cast him as the victim of numerous mechanical problems with his truck. When those culminated in brake failure, Aguilera-Mederos testified, he considered several options, including driving onto the grassy median that separates eastbound and westbound I-70 near Colorado Mills. But he feared that he'd wind up in the path of oncoming traffic on the other side of the highway, and that smashing directly into the bridge "would cause an explosion," he explained. So he tried to slow down by swerving, but that didn't prevent a deadly tragedy.

In the end, Aguilera-Mederos was found guilty of 27 of the 41 charges against him. Included were four vehicular homicide counts, six counts of assault in the first degree — extreme indifference, ten counts of attempt to commit assault in the first degree — extreme indifference, two counts of vehicular assault — reckless, one count of reckless driving, and four counts of careless driving causing death.

LULAC notes that Aguilera-Mederos, who's identified as a Cuban immigrant, "told investigators his brakes failed. Yet, the district attorney in the case charged him with first-degree assault and attempted first-degree assault. These are considered 'crimes of violence.' Under Colorado law, sentences for convictions run consecutively, which totaled 110-years. Mederos was not charged with driving under the influence, but the jury found him guilty for not using runaway truck off-ramps he passed up immediately before the fatal crash." (Aguilera-Mederos had testified that he did not see a couple of runaway truck ramp signs.)

According to LULAC national president Domingo Garcia, "DA King abused her authority when she filed numerous criminal charges against Mederos, who was driving a defective vehicle. Yet no criminal liability was assessed against the truck company owner or the person responsible for maintaining the truck's safety equipment. This case proves the gross inequity in the justice system. 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.... To sentence this man to more than a century behind bars for what was a tragic accident is a black eye that taints not just the Colorado legal system, but all the American courts."

Adds Sonny Subia, LULAC's Colorado state director: "Colorado LULAC deeply regrets the loss of four lives and many others who suffered injuries in this accident. 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. Suddenly, he found himself losing control of a runaway truck, and there was another truck already on the side of the road that prevented him from taking evasive action. Now, the runaway mandatory sentencing process compounds the tragedy and serves no purpose, nor does it right the scales of justice. Colorado LULAC sees not a reckless criminal who purposefully set out to kill four innocent people. Rather, Rogel Mederos was on the job, earning a living for himself and his family, when a mechanical failure triggered this terrible accident. We hope that Governor Polis will remove this unusually harsh sentence intended for violent criminals who intentionally endanger or kill others."

Here is King's official response to LULAC's announcement:
This tragedy was devastating to the victims, their families and our entire community. The actions and decisions of Mr. Aguilera-Mederos resulted in the loss of four lives, devastating injuries to the survivors and — as we heard them state during the sentencing hearing — grave impacts to their families and loved ones. We initiated plea negotiations, but Mr. Aguilera-Mederos declined to consider anything other than a traffic ticket. The facts and consequences of his decisions that day were extraordinary enough to support pursuing first-degree assault charges. Ethically, we do not — nor can we — pick and choose between victims in charging. The jury’s thoughtful verdict reflects the strength of the evidence presented and recognizes the harm caused to the victims. The sentence — which our office requested the minimum for — is within the purview of the court and reflects the judgment of the legislature. Just as the law mandates this outcome, it also provides future opportunity to revisit the sentence, and we will again pursue an appropriate outcome if that opportunity arises, after consulting with the victims and survivors and receiving their input.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts