During his sentencing hearing last week, Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos broke down in tears as he pleaded for a judge to forgive him for a 2019 incident in which he crashed a big rig into a group of stopped cars on a Colorado highway. The collision killed four people, injured a half-dozen and started a fire that engulfed several vehicles and melted portions of the highway.
“I would have preferred God taken me instead of them,” Aguilera-Mederos, 26, said. The truck driver insisted the crash was not intentional, saying his brakes failed and he tried his best to avert disaster.
Two months earlier, a jury had convicted Aguilera-Mederos on 27 counts in connection with the incident, including four counts of vehicular homicide, six counts of first-degree assault and 10 counts of attempted first-degree assault, the Associated Press reported. Colorado District Court Judge A. Bruce Jones said during last week’s sentencing hearing that he was “not angry” at Aguilera-Mederos but did not have the discretion to impose a sentence lesser than 110 years in prison. Colorado law, he said, only permitted him to impose the minimum prison time for each charge, and “every crime of violence has to be sentenced consecutively,” he said.
“If I had the discretion, it would not be my sentence,” Jones said, not specifying what his preferred sentence would be.
Now, more than 4 million people have signed a Change.org petition asking Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, D, to grant clemency to Aguilera-Mederos or commute his sentence. The petition argues that Aguilera-Mederos did not intentionally cause the deaths and was not a criminal deserving of a lifelong prison sentence. A spokesperson for Change.org told KDVR that it was the fastest-growing petition of 2021.
A spokesperson for Polis told news outlets that the office is “aware of the issue,” and the governor and his team “review each clemency application individually.”
On April 25, 2019, the brakes on Aguilera-Mederos’s semi truck failed on a mountainous portion of Colorado’s Interstate 70, and the truck plowed into dozens of stopped cars, causing a 28-car pileup and a fire that engulfed vehicles and portions of the highway. Prosecutors argued during the trial that Aguilera-Mederos did not do everything in his power to avoid the deadly collision – noting that at one point, he drove past a runaway truck ramp after he had lost control of the vehicle, KUSA reported.
Aguilera-Mederos’s defense argued that the truck driver, who was 23 at the time, did not intentionally drive past the ramp; instead, his lawyers said he was focused on swerving between cars and navigating the road, the news station reported.
In statements before and during the sentencing hearing, relatives of those who died in the collision described their grief. Gage Evans, whose husband Bill Bailey died in the crash, told CBS News before the hearing that she believes Aguilera-Mederos made “reckless decisions” and deserved a prison sentence.
The wife of Doyle Harrison, who also died in the incident, said that while she is willing to forgive Aguilera-Mederos, he needs to face consequences for his actions, KUSA reported.
But the judge suggested that no one thought Aguilera-Mederos, an immigrant from Cuba, deserved 110 years in prison.
“In all the victim impact statements I read, I did not glean from them someone saying he should be in prison for the rest of his life and he should never, ever get out – far from it,” Jones said. “There was forgiveness reflected in those statements, but also a desire that he be punished and served time in prison, and I share those sentiments.”
Aguilera-Mederos’s defense lawyer, James Colgan, argued that the law allowed for his client to receive a minimum sentence of 20 years, the Denver Post reported. But the judge said during his sentencing remarks that the state gave him no choice other than to impose the minimum sentence for each count. Under Colorado law, most of the sentences on the individual counts need to be served consecutively.
Jones explained that Aguilera-Mederos can still petition for a sentence reconsideration within 126 days.
“I have no desire personally to see Mr. Aguilera-Mederos in prison for the rest of his life and away from his wife and son,” Jones said early in his remarks. “I do not know how this will ultimately resolve.”