Curtis Brooks was 15 years old when he was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a shooting death in which he didn’t pull the trigger.
Now, a juror tells CPR News that the trial changed his outlook on juvenile crime, and he believes Brooks deserves a second chance.
And Brooks may get that, or something close to it, on Wednesday.
More than 20 years ago, the teenager had been kicked out of his own house by his mother, who was abusive and addicted to drugs. He and three other boys met up at an Aurora mall and hatched a plan to steal a car.
Juror Bruce Grode picks up the story, as it was told to the jury that day.
“They all left the mall and went over across the street,” said Grode, who lived in Littleton and showed up at Arapahoe County Court figuring he wouldn’t be chosen for jury duty.
Across that street they confronted 24-year old Christopher Ramos, who was walking out of a bank ATM. “One of the individuals shot the individual...shot him in the head.”
Grode says the boys tried to steal Ramos' car, but the car wouldn't start. So they ran. As it turned out, it was snowing, and a police station was only a block away. Officers called to the scene had little problem following the kids' tracks.
When the case went to trial, Grode says the jury understood that only one of the boys fired the fatal shot. But the prosecution explained that meant Brooks, who was still part of the shooting, was guilty of felony murder -- which is still murder in the first degree.
“If you're involved in a robbery or other circumstances and if there's someone killed, anyone involved in it is just as culpable as someone firing the shot. And that's the law,” he said. “Based on what we heard, the evidence was that Curtis was there, he did participate, he ran off with the other individuals and was caught.”
The jury found Brooks guilty. But they had questions for the judge and the prosecutor. And the answers gave them all a very different picture of the verdict they'd just delivered.
“What we heard was that Curtis had no prior criminal record. However, the three other boys had lengthy rap sheets. And what we found out was the three other individuals were on a crime spree. They had broken into a house, stolen guns, they were joyriding,” Grode said.
And he had another question.
“What I asked the judge is ,'Will this be something we can consider during the sentencing phase?’ And maybe the judge had said something earlier. The judge says oh no, that conviction is an automatic sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Grode says he was shocked.
"I could hear several others in the room gasp."
There were tears.
“One of the questions that was asked was, ‘Why didn't the district attorney or the prosecuting attorneys ever try to work out a deal with him since he had no prior convictions? Did you ever try to work out a deal with him? The defense attorneys say they begged.”
Prosecutors did offer a plea deal to one of the boys that took part, but, like Brooks, didn't fire the fatal shot. Grode notes that that boy was white, and is now out of prison. Another boy, who was 13 and also white, was too young for adult court and went through the juvenile system. He's also out. Brooks and the shooter, who are both black, are the only ones who remain in prison.
“I come from a very conservative family,” Grode said. “If you do the crime, you do the time. But after this trial, I realize there's so much more in play.”
The trial changed Grode's views on crime and punishment for good. And eventually Colorado changed its laws so that juveniles can no longer get life without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court further ruled that these kinds of harsh sentences for youth were cruel and unusual punishment, that a child's sense of responsibility isn't fully developed.
And yet, some 50 inmates in Colorado have been living in limbo because they were sentenced before the laws changed. Slowly -- really slowly in Colorado -- they're getting hearings to be re-sentenced. Grode felt so strongly about the Brooks case and his role in it that he's testified before the legislature on Brook's behalf. He’s even visited him in prison near Pueblo.
Curtis Brooks takes up the story.
“He (Grode) came here and visited me 2 years ago and we sat down we talked for 2 hours,” Brooks recalled.
It was weird, Brooks said. More than 20 years had passed since the trial. Brooks is 38 now. Rather than talk about the crime or the trial, “He was more interested in who I had become since coming into prison. The things that I had done.”
Brooks told Grode he was put in solitary confinement when he first arrived -- when he was 17. Prison officials said it was because of bad behavior in the county jail while awaiting trial.
Brooks said he started reading voraciously. “And I got into philosophy at that time and once I did that, it became a thing where I hungered for that knowledge and I spent my days just learning. It made me feel like I was understanding things more, myself and my situation.”
Brooks told Grode he studied languages and learned math. He got his GED. He takes classes from prison at a nearby college. And he lives in what's called an incentive unit -- a place for inmates with good behavior.
All that work will likely play a role in what happens to him Wednesday when Brooks will be in Arapahoe County Court for a re-sentencing hearing. Instead of life without parole, it's likely he'll get 40 years with the possibility of parole. That would mean Brooks would be in his 50's once he's released.
George Brauchler, the district attorney in Arapahoe County and a candidate for Colorado Attorney General known for being tough on crime, says after years of experience -- and with teenagers of his own -- his views on crime and punishment for juveniles has evolved.
“Yeah, I've changed my mind,” he said recently. Brooks and others like him deserve to spend at least some of their lives outside of prison, Brauchler believes. But he reminds people that Christopher Ramos, murdered at that ATM, and Ramos's family, are the real victims.
“No parole from this. No reprieve. No commutation of their sentence,” the district attorney said. He’s not sure he’ll be in court on Wednesday to learn of Brooks’s fate.
Just two of the 50 or so inmates in Colorado sentenced as juveniles to life without parole have been released from prison. Their freedom can depend on where in the state they were tried because some jurisdictions are more lenient than others. But Curtis Brooks' defense attorneys hold out hope that the legislature or the courts could take further action and Brooks could get out much sooner.
If he is released one day, there's one thing that scares him.
"That I would forget all of this and become complacent. That's my biggest fear and why I try to make sure I put myself mentally in the place that I will never forget this, never forget the circumstances that brought me here or the impact it had on Christopher Ramos and his family.”
Bruce Grode, the man who helped send him to prison but who is now an ally, will be in court for Wednesday’s hearing.
“I just hope Curtis has a chance at a life he wants,” Grode said. “He has absolutely paid for his crime.”