A truck driver whose lumber-hauling semi crashed into stopped traffic on Interstate 70 in Denver in 2019 and killed four people was sentenced to 110 years in prison on Monday. The brakes on 26-year-old Rogel Aguilera-Mederos’ tractor-trailer failed, leaving him no time or room to stop.
It’s a punishment nobody seems to agree with. Not Colorado District Court Judge Bruce Jones, who said, “If I had the discretion, it would not be my sentence.” Not the families of the deceased, some of whom support incarceration but none who appear to be calling for Aguilera-Mederos to die in prison.
Aguilera-Mederos was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Road rage wasn’t determined to be a factor, either. He did reportedly pull over to check his truck’s brakes before the crash, but determined it was safe to continue. Video shows him bypassing an emergency ramp he could’ve used and struggling to keep his truck within the lanes of the highway, at one point forcing a pickup into the left shoulder. From ABC affiliate KMGH-TV:
In an interview with police and through a translator, Aguilera-Mederos said he lost control of the vehicle after noticing his brakes were failing, but that he had only been traveling at 45 mph at the time. The downhill grade increased his speed as he entered Lakewood, he said. He didn’t want to drive off the road for fear of rolling the semi, so he tried to maneuver to the right shoulder and avoid the stopped traffic on I-70, according to the affidavit. But he saw the shoulder was blocked by another semi, so he swerved left — back into lanes of slow stop-and-go traffic from a previous crash at I-70 and Ward Road — and closed his eyes, according to the affidavit. The crash, which occurred around 4:50 p.m., caused a massive blaze in the eastbound lanes near Colorado Mills Parkway.
The traffic that Aguilera-Mederos encountered was congestion from a previous accident in the vicinity. In total, 28 vehicles were affected in the pileup, and at least six individuals were hospitalized for injuries, according to a CNN report published shortly after the crash more than two years ago.
In October, a jury found the truck driver guilty of 27 counts: four counts of vehicular homicide, six counts of assault in the first degree (extreme indifference); 10 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.
The length of prison time is due to Colorado law, which established mandatory minimum sentences for some of the charges Aguilera-Mederos faced while also mandating that these charges must be served consecutively, not concurrently — or, one after another, not at the same time.
Judge Jones said he has “no desire to see” Aguilera-Mederos spend the rest of his life in jail, according to the Denver Post. The driver’s attorney, James Colgan, told CNN after the sentencing that there will be an appeal:
“The issue with this appeal will not be the sentence itself. Under the law, the Court was not incorrect. However, the law, as written, is barbaric and Draconian,” Colgan told CNN. “There needs to be a change in the law.”
The Denver Post’s editorial board is calling for Colorado Governor Jared Polis to commute part of Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence. Perhaps the driver lacked the experience to deal with such an emergency — he was just 23 years old when the crash occurred. Perhaps he underestimated the severity of the problem until it was too late, and he had nowhere to go. Regardless, sending an employee to a lifetime-and-a-half in prison as a result of a tragedy stemming from equipment failure isn’t going to do anyone any favors — especially when nobody, not even those who lost loved ones, wants it.