This piece was published in partnership with Slate.
In 1995, 15-year-old Curtis Brooks was homeless. He had moved to Colorado from Maryland to reunite with his mother, who had been in and out of his life. “Getting out here, I was happy,” he recalled. “All I ever wanted was my parents. And it just turned out that it was not at all what I was hoping for.” Brooks ended up on the streets, gratefully accepting offers to sleep on couches and garage floors. One day in April, he sought refuge from a blizzard, watching kids play Mortal Kombat in the Aurora Mall arcade. In his bag, he carried his only possessions: a few T-shirts, a pair of sandals, a video game magazine, a tube of Clearasil, and face cleanser.
At the arcade, Brooks ran into Deon Harris, a teenager he’d met a few days earlier, who had let Brooks sleep on his couch. Harris and two other boys asked Brooks to help them steal a car. Brooks, who had no criminal record, agreed and was handed a gun. The group approached a stranger named Christopher Ramos, who was walking to his car from an ATM across the street. As instructed, Brooks fired a distraction shot in the air. Without warning, Harris shot Ramos in the head, killing him.
Brooks and the other boys ran, but police easily followed their tracks in the snow and arrested them. Brooks confessed to his role that day. Even though prosecutors acknowledged he wasn’t the one who’d pulled the trigger, he was convicted of first-degree murder and given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He remains incarcerated today.
Brooks’s conviction wasn’t a mistake. In most states, individuals can be convicted of murder for any death that occurs while they are in the act of committing another felony—in Brooks’s case, aggravated robbery of the car. “Felony murder rules” are used by prosecutors to escalate all sorts of crimes into murder convictions—even when the defendant did not carry out, intend, or anticipate the killing. By law, Curtis Brooks is as guilty as if he’d planned and perpetrated cold-blooded murder.
Felony murder rules are unique to the United States. It is difficult to quantify how many people they have put behind bars, since the convictions are simply recorded as murders. When Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International surveyed 172 letters from youths serving life without parole in 2005, they found that 45 had been convicted of felony murder. And a 2009 report by the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts found that 20 percent of people sentenced to life without parole as juveniles in the state were convicted of felony murder.
In Colorado, Brooks finds himself at the center of a case that is inciting public debate over the felony murder rule. On Monday, the court issued a ruling that could transform the lives of the 16 prisoners in the state who were sentenced to life for felony murder when they were children.
After returning a guilty verdict in Curtis Brooks’s 1997 trial, the jury went back to the deliberation room. The judge came by to thank the jurors and invite them to ask questions about the case.
“That’s when all of a sudden, everything changed,” recalled Bruce Grode. He and his fellow jurors were stunned and horrified, he said, to discover what they had been blocked from hearing about at trial: Brooks’s nonexistent criminal background, the fact that he barely knew his accomplices, and the multiple crimes the other boys had committed together that very morning. Grode said he asked if the jury could take this information into consideration for sentencing, but the judge explained that Brooks’s life sentence was automatic.
“There was a gasp in the room,” Grode recalled. “Some of the women on the jury started crying.” As they gathered in the courthouse parking lot before going their separate ways, “one woman said, ‘I feel like we’re pawns that’ve just been used in a chess game.’ It was very disheartening.”
When Brooks aged into the adult prison system at 17, he was sent to Colorado State Penitentiary, a maximum-security facility where everyone was in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. “I was absolutely a scared punk kid,” he said. “I acted out as a way to show, ‘Just leave me alone and I’ll do my thing.’” He spent the next 10 years in solitary confinement.
Brooks quickly earned his GED, but spent most of the next few years watching a small black-and-white TV in his cell. He often overheard other men on his tier talk about returning to crime upon release. “Hearing those kind of conversations disgusted me, because I thought it was like the ultimate level of stupidity,” he said. When he was 23, “I took a couple days where I literally didn’t talk to anybody. And I spent that time in self-reflection and I came to realize that I was disgusted with what I was hearing because I was seeing those qualities in myself. And that was the period when I decided I needed to change.”
He began reading voraciously; taking college courses; studying Spanish and Lakota, a Siouan language; learning psychology and physics; and writing a series of fantasy novels. “Once I started learning, it ignited that desire for me to just want more and more and more knowledge,” he said. He held a job and coached an over-40 basketball team, and he is co-founding a pro-social discussion group for incarcerated video gamers.
Brooks’s commitment to improving his life started drawing attention. The judge who oversaw his original trial wrote a letter in support of a reduced sentence, and former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter came to visit him in prison. Grode, the juror, as well as Brooks’s elementary school principal Joanne Benson, who is now a state senator in Maryland, have testified on his behalf many times.
“He has a heart of solid gold,” Benson said. “He’s wonderful, he’s low-key, he’s very calm. And knowing what he’s been through in his life, you would think he’d be out of control. Never. Just a kind, gentle soul. And for him to be caught up in this is just very heartbreaking.”
Grode visited Brooks in prison years after the trial and came away similarly impressed. “When you have no reason to be a decent person, and you know there is no way you are going to get out, and you choose a life to better yourself, to learn these languages, to go to school? You know he really just tried to be a good person. With no hope of getting out … And yet this is the path that he chose.”
Brooks finally got real hope of a future outside of prison in 2016, when the Colorado legislature passed resentencing guidelines in response to U.S. Supreme Court rulings banning mandatory life without parole for children. The new guidelines allowed Coloradans serving juvenile life without parole to petition district judges for parole eligibility, which would be reached after 40 years served. But the bill went one step further, making the 16 people convicted of felony murder as children eligible for sentences of as little as 30 years, if the district judge agreed their cases showed “extraordinary mitigating circumstances.”
In March 2017, 22 years into his incarceration, Brooks petitioned district judge Carlos Samour for a lesser sentence. If everything went right—if Brooks received the shortened sentence, served his remaining time, and won over the parole board—with his “earned time” for discipline-free years, his lawyers thought he could be released as early as 2019, by age 40.
But everything did not go right.
Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler asked Judge Samour to deny Brooks’s application, arguing that Colorado’s 2016 resentencing guidelines violated the state constitution by showing preferential treatment to people convicted of felony murder. In an October 2017 court order, the judge agreed, writing that Brooks and others convicted of felony murder could not legally receive shorter sentences than the rest of the state’s juvenile lifers, “no matter how poignant and tragic the defendant’s story may be.” But then in April 2018, right before Brooks’s resentencing hearing, Samour suggested he had changed his mind and would grant the shorter sentence. On the morning of the hearing, supporters filled the courthouse, including Brooks’s grandmother, Benson, and Grode.
But at the last minute, the DA asked the Colorado Supreme Court to halt Brooks’s resentencing, and to rule on the constitutionality of the resentencing guidelines. The state Supreme Court issued its ruling on Monday, deciding to uphold the state law. Brooks (and the 15 others serving life sentences for felony murders committed as children) now have a real chance at release.
Brauchler said Monday he would accept the ruling.
“The Supreme Court has now spoken, we know what the law is, and we accept that the ruling is now the law of our state,” he said in a statement. “It is important that we now see that Mr. Brooks is back in court as soon as possible for re-sentencing under the 2016 legislation.”
The felony murder doctrine is “one of the most widely criticized features of American criminal law,” the University of Buffalo School of Law’s Guyora Binder wrote in a 2011 law review article. “Some have concluded that felony murder rules impose unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment by ascribing guilt without fault, or that they violate conditional due process by presuming malice without proof.”
There’s no shortage of cases where people were convicted of felony murder despite no demonstrated intent to kill. In 1980, 18-year-old Orlando Stewart and nine other teenagers approached a stranger in Pennsylvania, planning to mug him. One of the teens hit the man, knocking him to the ground and causing a skull fracture that led to his death two days later. Stewart was convicted of felony murder and will remain in prison for the rest of his life.
In 2003, 20-year-old Ryan Holle loaned his car to his roommate, who proceeded to drive with several accomplices to steal a safe from an acquaintance’s house. When they found the woman at home, one of the accomplices beat her to death. Holle, who was miles away at the time, is serving life without parole in Florida.
And this April in Alabama, Lakeith Smith was sentenced to 65 years in prison, including 30 for felony murder. In 2015, the then-15-year-old burglarized two homes with several friends. When the police approached, one of the teenagers fired, and was shot and killed by an officer. Smith was convicted of the felony murder of his friend, based on the felony burglary he was committing when his friend was shot.
Felony murder rules disproportionately affect young people like Brooks, Stewart, Holle, and Smith, who are more likely to commit crimes in groups and are more impulsive than adults, increasing the chances someone in the group pulls a trigger. A law review article from 2017 described felony murder as “the quintessential juvenile crime, capitalizing on the developmental vulnerabilities of adolescents.”
Since 1980, the high courts or legislatures in Michigan, Kentucky, and Hawaii have eliminated felony murder rules, and Vermont, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Massachusetts limited felony murder to those who act with reckless indifference to the risk of death, preventing accomplices like Curtis Brooks from being charged with murder. There has been some recent momentum for reform; in the current legislative session, lawmakers entered bills that would end felony murder accomplice liability in Pennsylvania and California. The California bill, which would allow people currently serving life sentences for felony murder to petition for resentencing, passed in August. It is now awaiting Governor Jerry Brown’s signature.
Binder, however, warns that felony murder isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. “There was a lot of excitement back in the early 1980s when the Michigan Supreme Court abolished it,” he said, but only a handful of states have followed suit since then. Binder believes reform efforts would be most effective by focusing on the most problematic aspects of felony murder rules, like the accomplice liability statute that escalated Brooks’s crime to murder.
“It’s really, really hard to create any kind of change when you’re trying to reform something that’s called felony murder. Those two words are incredibly scary,” said Alexandra Mallick, executive director of Re:store Justice, an advocacy organization that helped advance the current bill to limit felony murder in California. “So first what we found was that it was really, really important to educate people.”
“Secondly, there is the narrative that prisons are full of nonviolent drug offenders and that’s really where we need to push our efforts. That is completely wrong,” Mallick said. She notes that people who have committed a violent crime have some of the lowest recidivism rates. “Most of the time when someone commits a violent crime, they age out of it, they’ll grow up,” she said.
“Participating in this crime that ultimately led to somebody losing their life is absolutely wrong,” Brooks said. “But at that same time, I don’t want to hold that label of murderer, because I didn’t intend to kill anybody. I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t want to be part of anybody dying. So for the law to say one is the same as the other one, to me, absolutely is unfair.”
Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, said he understands that felony murder rules are controversial, particularly because they allow people to be convicted of murder without proving intent to kill. “Granted, I understand completely the departure from the mens rea requirement evident in nearly every other crime,” he said. “It is a unique animal.”
Yet Raynes still believes felony murder rules deter crime and ensure adequate punishment for ending a life. “The thought process is, if you engage in an activity that is so inherently dangerous that it is likely or very likely to result in the death of another person, you should be held culpable,” he said.
The available data suggest harsh punishments for felony murder do not actually function as a disincentive. A 2002 paper that analyzed state-level crime rates from 1970 to 1998 concluded that “the felony-murder rule does not substantially improve crime rates. If the main reason a state retains the rule is to reduce crime, it should reconsider the rule.”
“You can always find that case that kind of stands out,” Raynes conceded, such as an accomplice who was completely unaware the shooter had a gun. But prosecutors are not required to bring felony murder charges in these cases, he said. If the original DA in Curtis Brooks’s case had opted to charge the teenager with armed robbery, Brooks would have been released decades ago.
While prosecutors may not be required to bring felony murder charges, they have a lot to gain by doing so. “The felony-murder rule makes it easier for prosecutors to gain convictions because it relieves them of the often onerous burden of proving that the teenage defendant intended to kill the victim,” Steven Drizin, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law, wrote in a 2004 law review article arguing for a ban against felony murder for teenagers.
“I came from a very conservative family, and it’s like, if you do the crime, you do the time,” said Grode, the juror on Brooks’s case. “But in hindsight, you start to see the wheels of justice and it really makes you question things.”
In states without felony murder rules—or perhaps even in a different Colorado county with a different DA—Brooks would not have been charged with murder. Justice means something different from state to state, county to county, and even defendant to defendant. Of the three teenage boys arrested along with Brooks for the murder of Christopher Ramos in April 1995, two have been released. One of them, who was 13 at the time, was sentenced as a juvenile and served less than five years in detention. A 15-year-old, who like Brooks was not the shooter, accepted a plea deal of 48 years. He successfully applied for clemency in 2011, and was paroled in 2015. Those two accomplices are white. Brooks was not offered a plea deal, and his 2011 clemency application was rejected. Brooks and the shooter, who also remains incarcerated, are both Black.
“I’ve taken the attitude—not in a negative way—that the past is the past,” said Brooks. “I don’t hold anything against any of them. I’m here because of my own decisions. They didn’t force me into this, they didn’t make me do anything. This was my choice, this was my fault. I’m looking to move past that past and make something better than what I have behind me.”
Now that the state Supreme Court has upheld the law, Brooks is appealing for a new sentence from the Arapahoe County District Court. In the meantime, he submitted a new application for clemency to Governor John Hickenlooper, and is cautiously hopeful for a sentence reduction.
“I know it’s going to be a challenge, mostly because of the perception that people have of individuals that have been incarcerated,” Brooks said. “But I kind of thrive on challenges and I always look forward to them, so I have no hesitations or reservations about what I’m going to have to deal with.”
If he’s able to rejoin the outside world, Brooks is hoping to make a “drastic change” from his rocky adolescence. “Growing up, I was basically trying to hang out with the cool kids and just trying to … fit in and be accepted. For me now, getting out, I feel like I have the opportunity to elevate myself well above that. I want to have different experiences than I would have had with the people that I was choosing to associate myself with at that time. I’m fine with getting out and being the guy who says, ‘Hey do you want to go to this museum?’ or, ‘Do you want to go fall asleep in an opera?’ or something like that.”
If he is released, Brooks has a job waiting with Joanne Benson, his elementary school principal who’s now a Maryland state senator. “Whatever Curtis Brooks wants to do, we have the resources right here in the state of Maryland that’s going to help him move where he wants to go,” she said. “We are convinced that he is going to be a productive and wonderful citizen. There is no question in my mind.”