Governor orders release for inmate sentenced to life as teen
DENVER (AP) — A Colorado man sentenced to life in prison without a chance of parole for his involvement in a fatal 1995 carjacking as a teenager will be released next year, the state’s outgoing governor ordered Friday.
The order means Curtis Brooks will be released from prison on July 1, with a five-year term of parole. Gov. John Hickenlooper also commuted the sentences of five other prisoners serving life terms without a chance at parole, setting parole eligibility dates ranging from four to 10 years from now.
“It’s our belief that young offenders who have grown into exemplary individuals, and who have clearly learned from their mistakes, should be considered for a second chance,” Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Brooks’ case prompted a several months of legal wrangling over Colorado’s 2016 law on juvenile defendants who received mandatory life sentences, a response to a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions deeming those life terms unconstitutional.
A judge was set to consider Brooks’ request for a reduced sentence Monday. But his attorneys believed even the minimum sentence now permitted for a felony murder charge in Colorado would keep Brooks in prison for several years and continued to petition Hickenlooper for clemency.
Hickenlooper in a letter to Brooks, now 39, called him a “prime example of extraordinary rehabilitation.”
“You have taken full accountability for your actions and recognize the mistakes you made in the past,” Hickenlooper wrote. “You are remorseful, and ready to advance to a new phrase of life.”
Brooks told the governor’s staff that he was “humbled, honored and thankful” after learning of the decision, said Hollynd Hoskins, Brooks’ lawyer.
“This is a great day,” Hoskins said Friday. “Curtis wants everyone to know that he will not let them down.”
Brooks was 15 and homeless when the crime happened. His mother, struggling with drug addiction after a release from rehab, kicked him out of her apartment. On April 10, Brooks went to an arcade seeking shelter from a spring blizzard and met three other teenagers who convinced him to help them steal a car.
Brooks later confessed to police that his role was to fire a gun into the air as a distraction. Brooks’ shot did not injure anyone, but a 17-year-old also involved in the robbery shot and killed the car’s owner, 24-year-old Christopher Ramos.
The shooter was charged with first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. A 13-year-old spent four years in juvenile detention. A 15-year-old was sentenced to 48 years in prison and received a pardon in 2011 from former Gov. Bill Ritter.
Brooks was charged as an adult and given the mandatory sentence of life without a chance at parole for his felony murder conviction.
Nearly two decades later, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions ruled those type of sentences represented cruel and unusual punishment for juvenile defendants.
Brooks while jailed earned his GED and began taking college courses, his attorneys have said. A network of supporters formed around him, including a juror from his original trial and his former elementary school principal who has since become a Maryland state senator.
In response to the Supreme Court’s decisions on juvenile sentencing, Colorado lawmakers in 2016 decided that judges could reduce the formerly mandatory life sentences of prisoners sentenced as juveniles.
At least 16 people, including Brooks, had been convicted of felony murder as juveniles, serving life with no chance at release in Colorado’s prisons.
The Colorado Supreme Court in September rejected Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler’s argument that the law gave preferential treatment to Brooks and other prisoners in the same circumstances.
Brauchler did not oppose a reduced sentence for Brooks but said Friday that Hickenlooper’s decision means Brooks will spend less time in prison than the mandatory 30-year minimum set in the 2016 sentencing changes. He also questioned the timing of Hickenlooper’s decision ahead of Monday’s re-sentencing hearing, when the governor’s has had Brooks’ clemency petition for months.
“It makes the court process irrelevant,” Brauchler said. “Why make the defendant, why make the victims, why make the community wait until the day before the hearing?”