William Allen’s case for commutation
‘I believe when you do good, you get good,’ he says
WHEN COVID-19 broke out at the Old Colony Correctional Center where William Allen was incarcerated, the immunocompromised prisoner in his 40s volunteered to clean the showers on the COVID unit because someone had to do it.
“When he sees something needs to be done, he steps up and does it,” said Peg Newman, a former prison chaplain who worked closely with Allen.
On Thursday, the Advisory Board of Pardons recommended that Gov. Charlie Baker commute Allen’s sentence for first degree murder and replace it with a sentence for second degree murder, which would allow Allen to become immediately eligible for parole. It is only the second time in Baker’s tenure as governor that the board has recommended a commutation. Baker has not yet acted on the first recommendation to commute the murder sentence of Thomas Koonce.
The Advisory Board of Pardons, in a 30-page report issued unanimously, wrote that Allen has “made exceptional strides towards self-improvement and self-development” during the 27 years he has been incarcerated.
In recommending commutation, the board noted Allen’s personal character and rehabilitation, and the disproportionality of his sentence.
Allen was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole in 1997 for his role in a 1994 armed robbery where the victim was killed. Allen, 20 at the time, and Rolando “Mike” Perry drove to Purvis Bester’s apartment in Brockton, where they believed Bester was selling crack cocaine, with the intent of robbing him. Allen was in another room threatening several women with a knife and asking for money when Perry fatally stabbed Bester.
According to facts laid out in the board’s recommendation, Allen grew up living with his mother in Roxbury until he was 11 or 12. His mother was addicted to drugs and his father was not part of his life. Allen ended up in state custody, then went to live with his great-grandmother. Perry was like a brother to him. Allen had a son when he was a high school junior. He graduated from Madison Park High School, then worked in dietary services at a veterans administration hospital. He was convicted of receiving a stolen car in 1992 and sentenced to probation, but never served jail time until his arrest for the armed robbery.
Allen’s disciplinary record shows some trouble in prison in the first couple of years of his sentence, but his only infraction since 2004 was a 2019 complaint that he used a telephone in a way that violated regulations. Since 2003, Allen has participated in numerous rehabilitative, educational, and service programs in prison.
Newman, the prison chaplain, worked with Allen daily from around 2011 to 2019. In 2011, Allen moved to Bridgewater State Hospital, which housed mentally ill incarcerated people, as a service worker – an inmate who moved there to work in the kitchen or do yard work or maintenance. Allen volunteered with a companion program, assisting patients with severe mental disabilities. “He turned out to be the most compassionate, amazing companion,” Newman said. “We could assign him to patients who had the greatest needs.”
On Sunday afternoons, Newman said Allen, who is Catholic, would volunteer to go with the chaplain to do a service at an assisted living unit in Bridgewater State Hospital for elderly men with severe illnesses who could not get to the chapel. Allen would help the men find the page in their prayerbook or help with music or giving communion. He started a weekly bingo game for them.
Kathleen Cahill, a social worker who co-facilitated the companion program, wrote in a letter of support that Allen routinely met her “with a smile, a cheerful good morning, and certainly some humorous anecdote or joke.” He used items from his own canteen to give patients as bingo prizes. Allen was vocal, she wrote, that “doing good for others helped him grow and gave him the constant drive to do better and do more.”
When the state overhauled care at Bridgewater State Hospital in 2017 and criminally convicted men were transferred out, Allen was moved to Old Colony Correctional Center where he has continued to work with inmates with special needs. He was recently certified as a peer specialist, completing a training program to work with people with disabilities.
“Even though the limitations of being in prison presented real roadblocks or barriers to having the kind of life he’d prefer to have, he managed to create a life for himself,” Cahill said.
Allen took responsibility for his role in the murder. At the hearing on his commutation petition, Allen apologized to Bester’s family, his family, and the Brockton community. He said he had vowed in 2004 to be a better man and “live his life in a way that would honor Mr. Bester,” which is when he began participating in programs and treatments.
“I believe when you do good, you get good,” Allen told the board.
At one point in 2011, he stopped an inmate from attacking a female correction officer.
Allen received letters of support from family, friends, people who worked in the prison system – and family members of the victim.
Bester’s daughter, Leah Cole, testified in favor of commutation. According to the board’s report, Cole said Allen’s actions caused her family pain, but she acknowledged Allen’s commitment to rehabilitation and said she hopes he can help the Brockton community with the skills he has learned, since she believes people can learn from him.
Allen’s attorneys also raised the legal context surrounding his sentence.
Perry, who actually murdered Bester, pleaded guilty to second degree murder and was released on parole in 2011.
Allen remains in prison. The reason is that Allen declined a plea deal and was convicted of felony murder, in which someone who is involved in a crime but does not actually commit the murder is considered culpable as if he committed the murder.
A 2017 Supreme Judicial Court ruling narrowed the applicability of felony murder to require someone convicted of felony murder to have malice, or an intent to kill, so the charge would not have applied in Allen’s case if it occurred after 2017.
Allen’s attorney Kristine McDonald said it is a matter of “fundamental fairness” that Allen’s sentence should not be harsher than Perry’s, since Allen had no intention to harm anyone and was in the other room when Bester was murdered. McDonald said Allen has been a “model prisoner” who has always held a job and worked to better himself through education and helping others. According to the pardon board’s recommendation, Allen obtained a barber’s apprentice license and a food service certification in prison.
“He’s dedicated his life to honoring the memory of the victim whose life was lost in this crime,” McDonald said.
Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz, whose office prosecuted the case, said he supports the commutation. “A number of changes over the last 27 years required us to revisit whether the sentence imposed at the outcome of Mr. Allen’s trial remains just today,” Cruz said in a statement. Cruz said his office met with Bester’s family and most family members supported commutation. “The law of felony murder has changed, and it appears Mr. Allen has taken all of the right steps toward rehabilitation,” Cruz said. “For these reasons, we supported the Parole Board making this recommendation.”
No one testified against commutation at the hearing.
Baker’s office confirmed that the governor received the Parole Board’s recommendation but had no further comment.
A group of community activists, including professional football player Devin McCourty, are planning a rally outside the State House on Monday urging Baker to commute Allen’s sentence.
Janine Carreiro-Young, who helped organize the rally as part of Brockton Interfaith Community, said Allen has “done more behind bars than most of us have done living completely free.” She added: “We feel like him coming home would be a huge addition to the local community.”Joseph Moore met Allen when he was working as an HIV educator at the Plymouth House of Correction while Allen was awaiting trial. Moore recalled Allen as a young man who stood out for his transparency and his lack of a criminal persona – along with his naivete in refusing to plead. “It was impressive that he was so persistent in his view of what he should do even though his lawyer probably was exasperated with him,” Moore said.
Moore, who is active in the Brockton Interfaith Community, has since become an advocate for Allen’s release. “I think he’s done more than the appropriate time,” Moore said.