It was a hot, hazy day Monday when Curtis Brooks walked out of the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in southeastern Colorado.
It was the first time in his adult life he’d been a free man.
Brooks, now 39, and incarcerated since the age of 15, said he was looking forward to a new life.
“I dealt with the nerves probably two or three days ago,” Brooks said. “And then yesterday, it just felt surreal. And today … I’m ready to go.”
Brooks was convicted of 1st degree murder and sentenced to life without parole for his part in a 1995 robbery that resulted in the murder of 24-year-old Christopher Ramos. At the time, Brooks was homeless and at a video arcade in the Aurora mall when he encountered some boys he knew. The foursome hatched a plan to steal a car, but it went awry and one of the boys, not Brooks, fired a shot that killed Ramos.
Brooks release was the culmination of years of legal work and lobbying by a team of supporters, including his original attorney in the case, Hollynd Hoskins of Denver. In December 2018, then-governor John Hickenlooper granted Brooks clemency, citing his “extraordinary rehabilitation." Brooks took college courses, studied philosophy and learned two languages during his 24-year-long incarceration.
Hickenlooper also underscored Brooks’ lesser role in the murder, noting that he hadn’t been the one to kill Ramos. The former governor referred to a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that found mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional.
On Monday, Brooks made sure to point out that he hadn’t forgotten the crime or the victim, and vowed to never forget what he’d done.
“People might think that I've done 24 years and now I'm being released so I'm moving on from this situation,” Brooks said. “But this is something that I have to carry with me every day."
But that doesn’t offer much solace to Ramos’ family, which has voiced deep displeasure about the prospect of Brooks’ release. In December, when Hickenlooper issued the clemency declaration, the district attorney’s office in Arapahoe county issued a statement for the family, quoting them as saying, “Christopher did nothing to have his life taken (and he) does not get a second chance at life."
Several people who’ve supported efforts to get Brooks’ out of prison waited in the lobby. They’d brought with them a pair of shorts and a shirt that they handed to prison staff to bring back for Brooks to change into before he walked out. That marked another first: the first time in 24 years Brooks had worn civilian clothes.
Among those gathered to see Brooks as he walked out of prison was state Sen. Joanne Benson, who was his school principal when Brooks lived in Maryland before moving to Colorado. Hoskins, who’s devoted years of her life to freeing Brooks, was also there.
"It's been 24 years since Curtis was incarcerated as a 15-year-old … and told that he was going to die in prison for a murder that he did not commit,” Hoskins said. “We didn't know if this day was going to happen.”
Before leaving the facility, Hoskins placed a call to Bruce Grode, another of Brooks’ champions and one of the jurors in the case decades ago. Grode has said he deeply regrets the jury's decision, and that many of the details in the case weren’t disclosed at the trial. Grode had promised to teach Brooks golf when he was released, something Brooks has always wanted to try. He also flew in Tuesday for an event celebrating Brooks’ release.
In total, about 2,000 people in the United States received automatic sentences of life without parole as juveniles, including nearly 50 in Colorado including Brooks. Many of those offenders have received shorter sentences, been released or granted clemency since the high court’s decision in 2012. But attorney Hoskins noted that many other juveniles offenders remain behind bars.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has said those sentences are absolutely unconstitutional — cruel and unusual punishment,” she said. “Curtis is going to be a shining example of how these juveniles can rehabilitate themselves."
Hoskins said she believes Brooks can make a successful life for himself outside of prison, despite several challenges. Offenders like Brooks have grown up in prison — many never learned to drive a car, never had a job, never paid rent.
On the drive back to Denver, Brooks said he was enjoying just looking out of the window.
"I'm a scenery person … so I just have to take in a little bit of the scenery now,” Brooks said. “I'll worry about everything else later."
The group made a quick pit stop at a burger place in Pueblo where Brooks ordered a burger and fries, his first non-prison meal.
Brooks heads to Maryland Wednesday, where he has family members, including a grandmother and brothers. He'll serve out his parole there. For now, he has a job working for an education coalition, and said he hopes to talk to young kids about his experience in prison.
Then, it will be up to Brooks to create a new life for himself.