Hickenlooper commutes life sentence of Aurora man convicted as teen of 1995 murder charge

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AURORA | Outgoing Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday announced he has commuted the sentence of Curtis A. Brooks, who in 1997 was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for taking part in the killing of a 24-year-old man in Aurora.

Brooks, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, has served 21 years in prison for a first-degree murder charge — even though he didn’t pull the trigger during the fatal killing near the Aurora Mall in 1995. In total, he’s been incarcerated for nearly 24 years.

This undated photo released by the Colorado Department of Corrections shows Curtis Brooks. Colorado’s governor has ordered that Brooks, sentenced to life in prison for his teenage involvement in a fatal carjacking, to be released next year. Brooks was 15 and homeless when three other teens enlisted him to help steal a car in 1995. (Colorado Department of Corrections via AP)

Hickenlooper’s commutation stipulates Brooks will be released from the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Ordway on July 1, 2019. Brooks will then be on parole for five years, according to a press release issued by the governor’s office.

In a phone interview from prison late Friday, Brooks said while he originally didn’t believe Hickenlooper would actually sign his order for commutation, the confirmation has left him “relieved.”

“It was a long process, there’s been ups and downs, and twists and turns, and definitely a lot of frustrations that have gone along with it,” he said. “The thing that I have learned along the way is patience. Control is something we would like to think we have, that we really don’t have.”

Brooks was one of several young boys who in 1995 tried to steal a car near an Aurora mall. During the incident, one of the boys, 15-year-old Deon Harris, shot and killed 24-year-old Christopher Ramos as he walked away from an ATM.

Harris is still serving a life sentence for the killing.

Another co-defendant in the case, who was only 13 at the time of the murder, was released after serving about four years. A fourth co-defendant, Sean Steele, was granted clemency by former Gov. Bill Ritter in 2011.

Even though Brooks didn’t personally shoot Ramos, statute stipulated he had to receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a first-degree murder charge, Hickenlooper explained in his letter to Brooks announcing his decision. 

“You were sentenced under a theory of felony murder: though you did not commit murder yourself, you received a sentence for first degree murder the same as if you had been the killer,” Hickenlooper wrote.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Brooks’ case has also been examined at the state supreme court level, as justices have looked into the constitutionality of new re-sentencing legislation in Colorado.

“Governor Hickenlooper made a very bold decision today, but it really wasn’t bold because it was the only decision to be made,” said Hollynd Hoskins, an attorney with the Denver law firm Leventhal and Puga who has guided Brooks’ case since it began. “Justice had to be done.”

Hoskins was the original public defender assigned to Brooks in the mid-1990s. She’s overseen his case and helped apply for clemency ever since — years after she stopped working as a public defender and became a prominent trial attorney.

“The only way that I can really describe my relationship with her, truly, is a blessing,” Brooks said of Hoskins. “She doesn’t really have a reason to truly care. She picked it up because she felt it in her heart … I feel like she’s the one who needs to be congratulated.”

In explaining his decision to grant Brooks clemency, Hickenlooper noted Brooks has worked toward rehabilitation while in prison, obtaining his GED and taking college correspondence courses.

“The warden at Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility has noted that you have been a model offender for the past decade,” Hickenlooper wrote. “Significantly, you have a strong support network that is prepared to assist you, including a Maryland State Senator and a United States Senator.”

While in prison, Brooks has studied several languages, including Spanish and Lakota, and taken classes through Adams State University. So far, he has enrolled in classes related to business, English, psychology and history, he said.

Brooks, who grew up in Landover, Maryland, may be able to serve his parole in his home state, pending some additional approval, Hickenlooper stipulated.

Brooks said he has a clerical job lined up working in the office of Maryland state Sen. Joanne Benson.

Before being released next summer, Brooks said he’ll be brushing up on his computer skills and preparing for life outside of prison.

“I know how to turn a computer on, but technology has definitely left me behind,” he said. “I’m definitely going to be leaning very heavily on the support system that I have out there. The prison environment is not what society is, so I definitely want to start preparing my mind for leaving this behind and becoming acclimated to the things that I’m going to have to deal with out there.”

When Brooks was first incarcerated, pagers were the primary form of communication, he said.

“I don’t think those really exist anymore,” Brooks said. “Life doesn’t really function that way anymore.”

Going forward, Brooks said he aims to live his life outside of prison in honor of Ramos. He said he understands that the Ramos family may be displeased with Hickenlooper’s decision to commute his sentence.

“What I really hope to show through my actions is that I am remorseful,” Brooks said. “I don’t want to just stand in a corner and scream ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s not enough. I haven’t forgotten Christopher Ramos or what happened to him.” 

Upon receiving notification of Brooks’ clemency, members of the Ramos family told prosecutors in the 18th Judicial District they were “devastated,” according to Vikki Migoya, spokeswoman for for the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

“Christopher did nothing to have his life taken,” Ramos’ family members wrote in an email to a victim advocate in the district attorney’s office. “(He) does not get a second chance at life.”

Also on Friday, Hickenlooper commuted the life sentences of five other Colorado prisoners who were sentenced as young men. Each of them will be eligible for parole at varying points in the next decade.

On top of awarding commutations, the governor granted pardons to 46 people, including nearly a dozen offenders who were prosecuted in Arapahoe and Adams counties.

While a pardon doesn’t scrub a conviction from a person’s record, it reinstates a slew of civil rights for the offender.

Almost all of the pardoned convictions stemmed from low-level drug offenses.

During his governorship, Hickenlooper has granted pardons to 135 people and granted six commutations, according to his office. 

Regarding the controversial death sentence of convicted murder Nathan Dunlap, Hickenlooper has punted the stay of execution to incoming Democrat Jared Polis. Though he opposes the death penalty, the former congressman from Boulder has not specified how he will handle Dunlap’s case.

Dunlap was convicted of murdering four people at a Chuck E. Cheese in Aurora in 1993. Today marks the 25-year anniversary of the shooting.