The lack of accountability behind a trucker’s egregious 110-year sentence

The lack of accountability behind a trucker’s egregious 110-year sentence
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By now, much of the world has heard of Kayla Wildeman, the deputy prosecutor in Golden, Colorado who boasted on social media that she received a ghoulish trophy for obtaining 110 years in prison for Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, a Cuban-American immigrant who crashed his truck after his brakes failed. That is what happens when Kim Kardashian condemns your name to her 271 million Instagram followers.

The name Trevor Moritzky may also be familiar, since he is the more senior prosecutor who gave Wildeman the macabre token: one of the brakes from Aguilera-Mederos’s truck that had failed, leading to a huge crash that killed four people and injured 28.

But far less has been said about District Attorney Alexis King, the elected top prosecutor of Jefferson County who made this travesty possible. While it was the previous DA (and her former boss) Pete Weir who originally filed the stacked charges against Aguilera-Mederos, King could have dismissed the case, or drastically reduced the charges. Instead, King openly conceded she kept all the charges in place to try to coerce him into a plea bargain.

When he refused, she opted to punish him for exercising his constitutional right to trial, as she recently admitted. Only after mass outrage has King asked the court to reconsider the disproportionately harsh sentence.

King, who was first elected in 2020, does not have a reputation as an anti-immigrant activist. She did not run as a caricature of a racist law enforcer in the mold of Joe Arpaio.

On the contrary, King claimed to be a criminal justice reformer on the campaign trail, with the caveat that she is also “a prosecutor’s prosecutor.” When she won the race, she said, “We’re all fighting for a criminal justice system that we can believe in; that everyone feels confident in.”

And her endorsers included Democratic Party mainstays like Emily’s List, which seeks to get more liberal women into office, as well as further-left organizations such as Our Revolution and the Working Families Party.

Could such endorsements suggest a failure of due diligence?

According to her LinkedIn profile, King served as a deputy district attorney in Jefferson County from January 2007 to June 2017. In this capacity, she once urged prison for a man in an animal cruelty case by comparing the condition of a horse to a concentration camp victim.

King also frequently took charge of juvenile justice matters, including teen sexting situations. She teamed up with clinical therapist Cheryl Kosmerl to create Sexting Solutions, a therapeutic intervention that formed part of a diversion program involving a $250, five-week course for teen sexters. While that may sound like a humane alternative to child pornography charges for relatively normal teenage behavior in the 21st century, it isn’t hard to detect an element of shaming.

On her website, Kosmerl writes, “Through my work with the District Attorney’s office and the offense-specific population I have come to recognize the patterns of low self-esteem, lack of empathy and poor relationship skills occurring not only with the perpetrators but the victim as well.”

King also made the choice, of course, to work for former DA Pete Weir, who was on the wrong side of several international human rights issues. After state senator Cheri Jahn filed a bill to put Colorado in line with a Supreme Court decision banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children, then-DA Weir said, “District attorneys were not consulted during the creation of this legislation. I believe they give inordinate benefits to murderers.” Weir is also a long-time defender of the death penalty in a state where the public has repeatedly refused its use, even in the most heinous cases. In 2020, Governor Jared Polis signed the death penalty’s abolition into law, commuting the sentences of the state’s three death-row prisoners—all of whom are Black.

Most pertinently to the Aguilera-Mederos case, there’s also the question of DA King’s staffing decisions immediately after she took office.

Trevor Moritzky only started working in Jefferson County at the beginning of this year. It isn’t fully clear whether it was DA King or her predecessor who made the decision to hire him. But King— who fired 10 other prosecutors in the office before her swearing in—decided to keep him.

By several accounts, Moritzky appears to be a classic “tough on crime” prosecutor. Only not so much when women are subjected to rape or domestic violence.

Former Westminster police officer Curtis Lee Arganbright was accused of brutally raping a woman he was driving home from the hospital while on duty in 2017. As the chief deputy district attorney in Adams County, Colorado, Moritzky approved a deal whereby Arganbright would plead guilty to two misdemeanors and serve 90 days in jail. Only one of those convictions—unlawful sexual contact—is for a sex crime, and it does not reflect what the former officer was accused of: rape.

Additionally, Moritzky was the deputy prosecutor who handled the domestic violence case against former University of Colorado assistant football coach Joe Tumpkin. His victim, Pamela Fine, excoriated Moritzky and his boss, then-DA Dave Young, for accepting a plea to one misdemeanor domestic violence charge after originally charging him with five felonies. Fine described being assaulted more than 100 times, including beatings and chokings.

Moritzky, who so crudely celebrated the 110-year sentence for Aguilera-Mederos, did not ask for jail time on Tumpkin’s misdemeanor conviction.

Earlier this year, Fine protested on social media when Moritzky was briefly being considered for a judgeship in another county. Governor Polis ultimately turned him down for the job.

As national pressure grows, it could be worth Coloradans lookin into ways to strip bad DAs of their power. For example, in New York, the state constitution actually gives the governor the power to fire a DA. But they should also be mindful that this sort of power can be used for unjust purposes, such as when then-Florida Governor Rick Scott successfully stripped former Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala of her first-degree murder cases in an attempt to force the application of the death penalty.

Nearly five million people have already signed a Change.org petition asking for the Governor Polis to shorten Aguilera-Mederos’s sentence, which he already has the power to do.

Colorado’s law that mandated Aguilera-Mederos’s sentences be served consecutively is another culprit that legislators should address—even if the judge’s courtroom claim that his hands were tied was only half-true, given he determined the length of each sentence. There is no mandatory minimum for many of the charges in the case.

But another lesson of this injustice must surely be that district attorney candidates should be subjected to far greater scrutiny—including by the hugely influential organizations that endorse them. The Aguilera-Medero case shows that the consequences of failing to apply this are all too real.

This article was originally published by Filter, a magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter.

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