By now, Coloradans know the tragic story.
On April 25, 2019, 23-year-old Rogel Aguilera-Mederos drove his company’s semi-truck through the Rocky Mountains for the first time. After successfully navigating several challenging descents, the brakes in his truck failed.
Heading toward Denver on I-70, the loaded semi-truck began hurtling downhill at increasingly dangerous speeds. The young driver panicked, missing the runaway truck ramp, and in what he thought would be his final moments simply hugged the wheel and closed his eyes.
Aguilera-Mederos didn’t die, but four others did.
Following the crash, District Attorney Alexis King filed 41 charges against the young driver, sparking intense debate. Over two years later, District Court Judge Bruce Jones sentenced Aguilera-Mederos to 110 years in prison, noting it would not be the sentence he’d give if he had discretion under existing law.
As tragic as this outcome was, this sentence is far too much.
The reasons are many.
Aguilera-Mederos was not drunk driving. He was not malicious in intent, his brakes failed. Most of all, there are reasonable explanations for why he would miss the runaway truck ramp.
Although the prosecutor argued Aguilera-Mederos made a series of terrible and reckless decisions, at 23-years-old, what seems like “common sense” to an older, more experienced person isn’t as obvious to the younger brain, especially in the heat of a moment.
Neuroscience has well demonstrated that the human brain is not fully formed until likely the mid-20s, specifically the prefrontal cortex, a region associated with higher level reasoning.
More importantly, at any age, a heightened state of panic — which could easily be induced by a truck barreling downhill into traffic after losing its brakes — is known to engage the emotional centers of the brain, shifting activity away from the more logical prefrontal cortex.
This shift could easily interfere with a seemingly obvious or logical decision, and could even affect the most well meaning and experienced drivers without extensive proper training.
Given Aguilera-Mederos’ young age, primary language, mountain inexperience and a panicked state, it’s not hard to appreciate how his actions were anything but intentional. This fact should absolutely change the outcome of his punishment.
Still, mercy goes deeper than his intent.
As a growing awareness of racial injustice sweeps the nation, this case hits especially hard. While young, white men such as Kyle Rittenhouse have recently been found not guilty — even in the face of shooting two people in public — this case reflects a similarly aged man of color who was sentenced to 110 years in prison for his truck brakes failing on the job.
Surely, there is no just system if these two outcomes can vary so widely.
There are also practicalities.
By forcing taxpayers to fund a lifetime of caging a man for a crash he caused at age 23 — almost entirely overlooking the trucking company who sent an inexperienced, young driver loose in the mountains — we are further committing a grave injustice to us all.
The sad reality is that no amount of additional jail time can bring back the lives lost, and taxpayer funds are better spent improving the very roads and safety laws that contributed to this terrible accident in the first place.
This approach, combined with extensive community service by Aguilera-Mederos, offers the best chance of reducing the likelihood that anyone else will have to bear such pain.
Many stakeholders have a role to play in remedying the situation.
Gov. Jared Polis should commute the sentence and/or ensure that the district attorney will achieve a more reasonable outcome.
District Attorney Alexis King should take stock that she should have never pursued such extensive charges in the first place, knowing the laws that would tie the judge’s hands.
Her office should therefore revisit how decisions to charge are made moving forward, with specific focus on eliminating the dirty tactics of purposefully overcharging to achieve a plea deal and how racial bias influences decisions.
State legislators should also work to remedy the law that tied the hands of a judge who openly acknowledged this was not the sentence he wanted to give.
There’s a time for life in prison, but this isn’t it. Regardless of the law, Aguilera-Mederos is already burdened forever with the mental anguish of being the perpetrator in a deadly crash. Breaking yet another family forever only adds more injustice to an already unjust and tragic event.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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