Washington: Curtis Brooks had been out of prison in Colorado for one week when he arrived at a church in Maryland on Monday, doling out hugs and posing for pictures with US Senator Chris Van Hollen and state Senator Joanne Benson.
He’d spent the past 24 years behind bars, after being sentenced to life without parole for his involvement at age 15 in a carjacking that led to a fatal shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Another boy pulled the trigger.
Brooks’ early release followed two Supreme Court decisions barring mandatory life sentences for juveniles and years of sustained advocacy — including by politicians in Maryland, the state where he grew up.
“I’m still adjusting,” said Brooks, now 39, as he stood in St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church in Capitol Heights, just outside the District of Columbia in Prince George’s County. “I decided to just give hugs to everybody.”
Brooks plans to work for the Prince George’s County Education Coalition and to do advocacy work with Benson, who was the principal of John Bayne Elementary School in Capitol Heights when she met Brooks and his family in the 1980s. He said he wants to assist people re-entering society after incarceration and to push for legislation to help those who received lengthy sentences as juveniles have their cases re-examined.
“People can really tell you whatever they want, but it is their actions that show the truth of their heart,” he told dozens who gathered, many of whom had sent donations to help pay for books for him to take college courses and written letters to him and his family while he was locked up. “I am going to spend every single day remembering everything that you all did for me.”
The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that states cannot impose mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles convicted of murder, citing children’s lack of maturity and sense of responsibility.
Four years later, the high court ruled that those sentenced as teenagers to mandatory life imprisonment for murder must have a chance to argue that they should be released from prison.
But many of those cases — advocates estimated in 2016 that there were between 1,200 and 1,500 — have been slow to advance through the courts.
There are at least 300 people in Maryland who were sentenced as juveniles serving de facto life sentences, said Crystal Carpenter, a community assessment and engagement manager with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, has faced pressure to overhaul the rules governing parole for all prisoners, including a challenge to the legality of the system by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Benson remembered Brooks as a little boy who would sometimes cry before he got off the school bus, and who always held his little brother’s hand and made sure to walk him to the classroom. She lost touch with him in the 1990s, around the time he moved to Colorado to live with his mother, who struggled with drug addiction.
Brooks, who described himself as a difficult teenager, said he became homeless in 1995, after his mother asked him to leave the house. He and three other boys attempted to steal a car owned by 24-year-old Christopher Ramos. One of the other teens confessed to shooting Ramos during the robbery, according to The Denver Post.
Because of his role in the killing, Brooks also was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, as mandated at the time by state law.
After hearing about Brooks’ legal case in January 2013, Benson vowed to do everything she could to get him out of prison. She made repeated trips to Denver and enlisted the help of Van Hollen and the 202 Coalition, a grass roots group dedicated to improving life in some of the poorest parts of Prince George’s. Late last year, then-Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, commuted Brooks’ sentence, setting a July 1, 2019, release date.
“Today is really a story of the triumph of hope over despair,” Van Hollen said on Monday to cheers from the crowd. “It is an example of the power of love, and the power of persistence, to make sure that justice is done.”
After the event, a steady stream of attendees greeted Brooks, who still must serve five years of parole.
“We’ve been praying for you,” said one member of the 202 Coalition, reaching out to shake his hand. Brooks wrapped the elderly woman in a hug and thanked her.
“We know you’re going to do great things,” she told him.
At one point, Benson went out to her car in the rain to retrieve a present for Brooks. She returned with a small blue and white T-shirt that read, “Inside this shirt is a John Bayne Bear.” She grinned as she held it up next to him, explaining that the shirt would have fit Brooks when he attended the school.
For Brooks, the last week has been a blur that has included watching a Colorado Rockies baseball game, reconnecting with family in Prince George’s and having his younger brother teach him how to use an iPhone.
He learnt several languages while in prison and earned credits toward a college degree. But he knows that he still has to learn the basics — including how to drive a car and pay his bills.
“It’s been like a honeymoon,” he said. “But I know reality will set in.”