The tragic story of how Curtis Brooks was sentenced as a young teenager to spend his life in prison for his part in a murder someone else committed shows how our justice system often provides less than justice.
Changes to the system rolling out last week are long overdue.
Brooks was one of four teenage boys in 1995 who plotted to steal a car near the Aurora Mall. One of the boys, Deon Harris, shot and killed 24-year-old Christopher Ramos as he walked away from an ATM.
It was a shocking and unnerving murder.
Brooks wasn’t the gunman. He had been homeless at the time, hanging out at the mall video arcade to keep warm on cold, snowy day. By chance, he met up with Harris and three other boys and was recruited to join their car robbery plan.
While the car theft was a repugnant and dangerous crime, it became clear during the trial that there was no sense of punishment fitting the crime or an appreciation for the mindset of adolescents.
All of the teenagers involved were given life-without-parole sentences, regardless that only one was a murderer.
As the case played out, during the trial and after, it became apparent that the gunman, acted alone, unexpectedly and out of his own twisted volition to turn the car robbery into a senseless murder.
Arapahoe County prosecutors, a jury and the court sent every teenager involved to prison for the rest of their lives — or at least they tried.
There were two wrongs. Americans’ view of the justice system has become more sophisticated. The nation has since realized that it’s possible, and not uncommon, that people act independently as criminals. While four teenagers may agree they’re going to use guns to commit a robbery, one or even none, might actually use it.
It’s a serious crime to brandish a gun during a robbery, one that Curtis deserved to punished for. But using a gun to murder someone is altogether a far more vile and extreme criminal offense. There is no compelling argument justifying blanket punishment as a solution for justice.
That’s not even what happened in this case. While the boys clearly were intent on stealing a car, shooting a stranger in the process was never part of the plan. As young adolescents, thinking through the reprehensible scheme of stealing cars and bringing guns was beyond them.
It was one boy, Deon Harris, alone, then 17, who unexpectedly decided to escalate a depraved criminal plot into fiendish calamity, shooting Ramos in the head.
An adult may have been callous and cruel enough to shoot another man without thought. Everyone knows, however, that the unbridled impetuousness of teenage boys explains why they can’t be trusted with guns, or even cars.
It doesn’t excuse Harris’ murderous crime, but it could explain it. What these types of verdicts disregard is that the reckless behavior of a troubled teenager is not unlike a disability, one that age and maturity can sometimes cure.
The U.S. Supreme court agreed with lower courts in 2012 that the underlying American principal of rehabilitation and judicial equity made it unconstitutional to sentence minor children to life in prison without an opportunity for parole.
In 2016 the high court made that ruling retroactive, and the Colorado Legislature then acted on that mandate, creating new sentencing guidelines for young adolescents who perpetrate monstrous crimes.
Two years later, the fate of Curtis and 47 others in similar situations has changed little.
While it’s laudable that Gov. John Hickenlooper last week used his power as governor to finally expedite the process of commuting the sentences of Brooks and a handful of others in similar situations, he’s doing simply what the law dictates.
Hickenlooper leading Colorado into correcting this and other sentencing mistakes in no way undermines the 1997 effort by the Arapahoe County court to impose justice in Ramos’ murder. It only rectifies it.
Curtis didn’t kill Ramos. He’s spent 24 years in prison because of a juvenile accessory case that would, today, net him a much lesser sentence.
Curtis was wrong to do what he did. The court system was wrong to impose the life-sentence. The Curtis case and others aren’t a cause for celebration, just for relief.
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