Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday commuted the life sentences of six men convicted of first-degree murder as young men or teens, marking the most significant action he has taken with his clemency authority in more than five years when he indefinitely halted the execution of convicted killer Nathan Dunlap.
The term-limited Democrat granted parole eligibility to the six, who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. That includes one — Curtis A. Brooks — who was a juvenile at the time he was sent to prison. Brooks will be released in July 2019 and ordered to serve five years of parole.
Brooks was 15 and with a group of other boys when one of them fatally shot 24-year-old Christopher Ramos during a robbery in Aurora in 1995. Brooks did not pull the trigger, but was convicted of felony murder — a Colorado law that gives legal responsibility for a killing to those present when a murder occurs if they participated in the events leading up to it.
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Brooks’ case has been at the center of a high-profile debate in recent months about juvenile sentencing in Colorado. Questions about his imprisonment have reached the Colorado Supreme Court.
“You are a prime example of extraordinary rehabilitation and illustrate our hope for every offender who spends time in the Department of Corrections,” Hickenlooper wrote to Brooks in his decision. “You have demonstrated that you will respect society’s laws and productively contribute to our society.”
The governor added: “You are remorseful, and ready to advance to a new phase of life. I believe you will be successful upon your release. … Good luck.”
To date, Hickenlooper has mostly used his pardon power on low-level drug offenses and other cases where those convicted expressed remorse and demonstrated that they turned their lives around.
Before today, the exception was Dunlap, who shot and killed four at a Chuck E. Cheese in 1993. Dunlap was sentenced to death but Hickenlooper granted a temporary reprieve in 2013 because he said the jury may have landed on a different punishment if they knew he was bipolar.
“These decisions are not made lightly,” Hickenlooper said in a written statement. “Every individual granted clemency has shown to us that they are worthy of this consideration. Their crimes were severe. It’s our belief that young offenders who have grown into exemplary individuals, and who have clearly learned from their mistakes, should be considered for a second chance. It’s our sincere hope that each individual granted a commutation or pardon uses the opportunity to its fullest.”
Hickenlooper told The Colorado Sun in November that he does not intend to take action to commute Dunlap’s sentence before he leaves office, instead leaving him in limbo unless incoming Gov.-elect Jared Polis decides to act.
Polis is opposed to the death penalty but has not said exactly how he would handle Dunlap’s case.
Hickenlooper’s latest action comes as he moves toward a possible presidential bid in 2020.
Brooks had been seeking a shortened sentence in light of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional and a subsequent Colorado law created in response that mandates how to address those sentences. 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler challenged the 2016 state law in the Colorado Supreme Court in response to Brooks’ case, but lost.
A re-sentencing hearing for Brooks was scheduled for next week but has been cancelled in light of Hickenlooper’s commutation. Brooks has been in prison for 21 years.
Brauchler called the governor’s timing “bizarre” given the upcoming hearing, pointing out that Brooks’ attorneys first appealed for clemency back in March. He questioned why Brooks’ sentence was commute after the Colorado Supreme Court ruled on the legality of the state’s juvenile re-sentencing standards in September.
“We have long advocated for the idea that, yes, we think Mr. Brooks is entitled to clemency,” Brauchler said. “Our intention was not to go to court and resist clemency for Mr. Brooks. it was to have a hearing in which the victims could have their feelings known. None of that’s going to happen now.”
Brauchler also noted that under the state’s 2016 re-sentencing law, Brooks would still have had to serve at least four more years in prison before being released and that his parole stint afterward would have had to be 10 years.
“If the governor was intent on giving more than the legislature could provide, I get that,” he said. “Why wait for the hearing? But why wait for the Friday before the hearing to do it. The reason that’s important is because: the victims. They are out here every single day wondering what’s going to happen to their loved ones’ killers. The governor waited until the last possible moment to let them know what his intentions would be.”
The family of Ramos, who was killed in the shooting Brooks was convicted in, told Brauchler’s office Friday that they were “devastated.” They had opposed Brooks’ release.
“Christopher did nothing to have his life taken,” the Ramos’ family said in an email to to Brauchler’s office, and “does not get a second chance at life.”
The other men convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole who now are eligible for parole because of Hickenlooper’s commutations:
- Monir Wood was sentenced in 1999 for committing felony murder. He was 24 at the time of the offense. He will be eligible for parole on July 1, 2028.
- Brian Lee was sentenced in 1993 for the 1992 killing of James McGregor when he was 22. He will be eligible for parole on Dec. 1, 2022.
- William Lee, Brian Lee’s brother, sentenced in 1993 for McGregor’s killing, committed when he was 18. He will be eligible for parole on Dec. 1, 2022.
- Eric Lightner was convicted of committing the first-degree murder of McGregor with the Lee brothers. Lightner was 21 at the time of the offense. He will be eligible for parole on Dec. 1, 2022.
- John Lopez was sentenced in 1999 for murdering his stepfather when he was 18. He will be eligible for parole on Dec. 1, 2026.
Hickenlooper noted that all five men were young at the time of their crimes.
On Friday Hickenlooper also issued pardons for 46 other people who have served their sentences for lower level crimes and who he believes are “currently contributing members of their communities.”
To date, the governor has pardoned 135 people.
A pardon is an act of public forgiveness for offenders who served their sentences. A commutation is where an offender’s sentence is shortened.
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