By Rory Fleming
Back in September, I wrote about how criminal justice reformers should look to make decarceration efforts more palpable to racial and ethnic communities that are historically less interested in the criminal legal system: namely, Latinx and AAPI communities. A recent case in Colorado against a young Cuban-American man, Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, has been decried as a travesty in Latinx media outlets like We Are Mitú and by popular Miami radio host Enrique Santos, representing an opportunity to change the narrative.
The situation that resulted in a de facto life sentence of 110 years in prison for Aguilera-Mederos is a classic example of prosecutors abusing the law because they — and perhaps their constituents — cannot endure the idea that a horrible tragedy can occur without somebody, even a factually innocent person, being held accountable in criminal court.
In short, Aguilera-Mederos was driving a large truck when his brakes failed on the interstate; four people ended up dead and many others were injured.
Deputy DA Kayla Wildeman argued the case, and essentially claimed that that Aguilera-Mederos was either negligent — stating “the defendant didn’t catch [the brake malfunction] like he was supposed to” — or perhaps reckless — claiming he might have “drove on his brakes the entire way and caused them to be that way,” and that he could have taken an off-ramp but thought he did not need to.
The reason for the extremely harsh sentence was that Colorado law mandates consecutive sentencing for certain “crimes of violence,” mixed with the fact that Aguilera-Mederos was charged with many assault in the first degree counts. Ironically, assault in the first degree counts as a violent crime, but vehicular manslaughter, where a person actually dies, does not.
From a legal standpoint, the case for the first-degree assault charges seems weak. The charge requires either specific intent to cause serious bodily injury, or, in the alternative, “extreme indifference to the value of human life” and knowingly engaging in conduct that “creates a grave risk of death to another person.” There is no way a prosecutor should have been able to successfully argue the first theory in this case, and even the second theory is dubious given the facts.
It is good that Deputy DA Kayla Wildeman is named in the press: her actions in this case show the kind of person she is. Yet anyone who knows how criminal prosecution works should be aware that a line prosecutor is mostly a cog. Similar to the military, there is a chain of command when it comes to making charging decisions, and the buck stops with the elected DA. Even if the DA did not personally touch the truck case — which is doubtful, since it’s the most high profile case out of the jurisdiction in years — that individual still has command responsibility.
So who is the Jefferson County DA? Her name is Alexis King. King rose to her position as a deputy DA to former DA Pete Weir, a locally well-liked Republican who spent eight years in the role. George Soros famously bankrolled Weir’s Democratic opponent, Jeff Lilly, in the 2016 DA race, and it was one of the few races that year where a Soros-backed DA candidate failed at the ballot box.
Weir, who originally charged this case before DA King took charge of the case, could not run again because of Colorado’s term limits law for DAs.
Soros’s decision to get involved in Jefferson County in 2016 received a substantial amount of backlash from the local legal community at the time. Lawyers as prominent as Bill Ritter, Jr., a former Denver DA and Colorado Governor who ran as a Democrat, did not believe that Weir had ethical issues or was unduly harsh, factors that seemed to have played into Soros’s decision to get involved in DA elections elsewhere.
Weir’s recent record was not as dramatic as some of the other DAs targeted by Soros that year, such as Devon Anderson, the Houston prosecutor who jailed a rape victim to force her to testify against her own rapist. But the vast majority of a DA’s unfortunate acts do not rise to the level of newsworthy status, at least according to legacy newspapers.
Yet, digging deeper, there were many principled reasons for reformers to oppose Weir. On policy matters, Weir fearmongered about Colorado cannabis legalization for adults causing pot use amongst kids to skyrocket; fought proposals to curb mandatory minimum sentencing; and used his authority to preserve death-in-prison sentences for kids. And while prosecutors are not authorized to lie in undercover law enforcement investigations, Weir and his prosecutors did so in order to help police conduct “To Catch a Predator”-style stings. After the public found out former Centre County (Pennsylvania) DA Stacey Parks Miller exhibited similar behavior, she had her law license suspended for over a year.
DA King is not a clone of Pete Weir, at least not nominally speaking. She is currently registered as a Democrat, though she donated twice in 2016 to Weir. She received some moderately pro-reform endorsements, such as one from Denver DA Beth McCann. King also stated after Aguilera-Mederos was sentenced that she would “welcome” a reconsideration of the prison term.
But let’s be honest. It is much easier to avert a needlessly harsh sentence than to undo it once it is done. The legal system places a high value on finality, which causes presumptions against defendants when they seek to undo injustices done to them in specific cases. DA King had the opportunity to offer a reasonable plea bargain, or simply drop and refile truly appropriate charges that balanced the community’s desire for accountability with a realistic accounting of Aguilera-Mederos’ culpability. She did not. This is the kind of cowardice that destroys lives.
If DA King is truly serious about fixing this injustice, she should do it herself. That is what the aforementioned Denver DA McCann, who endorsed King in 2020, did in the case of Marion Jetton. Jetton received a whopping 96 years in prison in a Denver court for $8,800 in bad checks, a sentence that was mostly the result of the state’s harsh repeat offender laws. McCann reopened the case, and renegotiated a plea so Jetton would be parole eligible after the 13 years he had already served. No drawn-out appeals or fruitless groveling to a governor for clemency needed.
Rory is a writer and licensed attorney.