Curtis Brooks, Sentenced to Die in Prison at Age 17, Is Free After 24 Years Behind Bars
By Elise Schmelzer, The Denver Post
After serving 22 years in prison for a crime he committed as a teenager, Curtis Brooks walked free Monday with promises to be a better man. Now he has to learn to live in a world he has only watched from a cell.
“It’s just been a case of taking everything in,” he said.
Brooks had been incarcerated since he was 15 years old for his involvement in a 1995 carjacking that led to the fatal shooting of 24-year-old Christopher Ramos. Brooks and three other teenagers approached Ramos as he walked to his car in Aurora in an attempt to steal the vehicle. Brooks didn’t fire the gun that killed Ramos — another of the teens confessed to the act — but he was convicted two years later of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, the automatic sentence mandated by state law at the time.
The law dictating juvenile sentencing changed in 2016, banning automatic sentences of life without parole for juveniles. In December, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper granted Brooks clemency, allowing him to leave prison and serve five years of parole. Ramos’ family said at the time of the clemency that they were devastated by the governor’s decision. Instead, they expected that Brooks would be resentenced to a less severe penalty like many of the other 48 inmates affected by the law change.
Brooks’ first 36 hours of freedom have been a whirlwind, he said. Now 39 and sprouting some gray hairs in his beard, he walked out of the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Crowley at about 9:30 a.m. Monday. He ate a hamburger. He hopped in a car for the three-hour drive to Denver. He got an iPhone and tried to teach himself to use it. He thinks he set up a Facebook account, but isn’t entirely sure. A longtime Marvel fan, he started to catch up on the movies he missed while in prison.
On Tuesday, a crowd of more than 50 celebrated Brooks’ release at a party in his honor at the home of his attorney, Hollynd Hoskins, who represented him at trial as a young public defender and later returned to help him win freedom. The judge who oversaw his original trial, his appellate lawyer, one of the jurors who convicted him and his elementary school principal — now a Maryland state senator — packed the Hilltop home. Brooks hugged and shook hands with his supporters, thanking them for their work.
The verdict remains the most devastating loss in her 24-year career, Hoskins said Tuesday. She felt guilty about the outcome for years. But seeing Brooks grow from a homeless, scared teenager full of bravado to an intelligent, ambitious man, and watching him leave prison has been one of her greatest joys, she said.
“I never forgot him,” she said.
Brooks said he needed to go to prison and doesn’t deny that he was part of a horrendous crime. He is remorseful. Prison helped him grow up and change his life. And he remembers the day his attitude shifted.
When he was 23 years old, he overheard other men in the facility talking about how they would return to lives of crime once they got out. Their conversation disgusted Brooks, but he said he could see himself falling back into trouble again. He didn’t want that to happen.
“Prison helped me realize who I didn’t want to be,” he said.
The change came incrementally, he said. He discovered a love of philosophy. He read René Descartes and pondered how the philosopher’s famous argument “I think therefore I am” applied to his life in prison. He read Friedrich Nietzsche, whose nihilism Brooks rejected. He moved on to classic literature, slowly making his way through “Crime and Punishment” inside his cell. He taught himself conversational Spanish, German, Japanese and French, as well as rudimentary Vietnamese and written Lakota.
He loved to learn. It gave him purpose. It made his days not feel like a waste.