Juvenile Life Without Parole

Curtis Brooks

In 1997, a judge sentenced 17-year-old Curtis Brooks to die in prison for a crime he committed when he was just 15, under the felony murder statute that makes a person guilty for the death of another, even an unintentional death, if it happened during the commission of another specified crime.

After the U.S. Supreme Court held that automatic life without parole sentences for juveniles violated the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment in Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Colorado General Assembly waited four years to fix Colorado’s sentencing law, even though there was no question it was unconstitutional.  In 2016, over strident objections from many elected District Attorneys across the state, the General Assembly passed a law that meant the 16 people in Mr. Brooks’s position were eligible for resentencing.  Under this law, the court could resentence them to life with the possibility of parole after 40 years, or—if the court found extraordinary mitigating circumstances—a determinate sentence of between 30 and 50 years, followed by 10 years of parole.

When Mr. Brooks asked for resentencing, the same prosecutors who testified against the law filed a lawsuit in the Colorado Supreme Court, arguing that the law was unconstitutional.  But the Court sided with Mr. Brooks and upheld the law.  On December 14, just three days before his resentencing hearing, Governor Hickenlooper granted him a limited commutation.  Under the terms of the Governor’s grant, Mr. Brooks will be released on parole July 1, 2019.  After serving five years on parole, he will have completed his sentence.

As is true every time the courts acknowledge that the myth of the super-predator is not the true face of the kids who end up tried as adults in the criminal system, it was the unswerving commitment of many members of our Colorado juvenile defense community that made it possible for Curtis Brooks to get his life back.  Hollynd Hoskins, Dru Nielsen, Sean Connelly, Ashley Ratliff, David Nuss, Bethany Neal, Leela Orbidan and Steve Kuzma were all part of the defense team that won this victory.  And credit is also due to Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, who courageously filed an amicus brief in the Colorado Supreme Court arguing that the resentencing statute was constitutional, bucking the elected DAs in the 1st, 4th and 18th judicial districts who argued that it was not.

Read the full Executive Order and Clemency Letter from Governor Hickenlooper HERE.

 

Terrance Wilder

In 1998, Terrance Wilder was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus an additional 144 years, for his role in the deaths of two Denver men.  Mr. Wilder, then 17 years old, was from a rural farming community in western Tennessee and had no prior juvenile or criminal history.  Mr. Wilder left home and moved to Denver to be close to his biological father, who he had only recently learned existed.  Mr. Wilder was arrested and charged with 1st degree murder within just three months of his arrival in Denver.

Even with no hope of release, Mr. Wilder immediately began engaging in educational and social programs at DOC. He completed high school and obtained some college credits, where his professors have commended his writing skills. Mr. Wilder has been employed in many positions within DOC. He currently works as a paraprofessional, helping other inmates learn and achieve. For eight years he has resided in the incentive unit, a voluntary program driven by the motivation toward positive change.

In 2015, Mr. Wilder engaged in restorative justice with Dr. and Mrs. Gordon England, the parents of one of the victims in his case. The Englands forgave Mr. Wilder and continue to provide support and friendship  throughout his quest to obtain legal relief. Mr. Wilder keeps in touch with Dr. and Mrs. England through letters back and forth. The Englands continue to tirelessly advocate for Mr. Wilder’s release from DOC.

Mr. Wilder was re-sentenced in 2017 to life with the possibility of parole after 40 years, plus 144 years, with a new parole eligibility date of 2104.  However, on December 21, 2018, Governor Hickenlooper noted this was simply another life sentence, and commuted Mr. Wilder’s sentence, directing the parole board to make Mr. Wilder parole eligible after the initial 40-year sentence.  In doing so, Governor Hickenlooper urged the parole board to release Mr. Wilder, calling him a “prime example of extraordinary rehabilitation” who “illustrates our hope for every offender who spends time in the Department of Corrections.”  This victory for Mr. Wilder was the result of his dedication to remorse, rehabilitation, self-improvement, and positivity.  Dr. and Mrs. Gordon England were instrumental in assisting Mr. Wilder in the preparation and  submission of his successful clemency application.

Mr. Wilder’s legal defense team includes Brad Junge, Ruth Summers, and Kyle Varvil. This team has represented Mr. Wilder since 2011. They successfully argued, in 2015, that Mr. Wilder’s mandatory sentence to life without parole, based on his conviction of first degree murder after deliberation committed when he was a juvenile, was unconstitutional. His sentence was vacated under the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama (2012). See People v. Wilder, 2015 COA 14.  Unfortunately  this published case was reversed by the Colorado Supreme Court in  People v. Tate, 2015 CO 42. Mr. Wilder’s legal team then litigated his sentence status.  The court determined, against the argument of defense counsel, the only sentence that could be assessed was life with the possibility of parole after 40 years, plus 144 years. Mr. Wilder’s defense team is currently appealing this determination by the court.

Read the full Executive Order and Clemency Letter from Governor Hickenlooper HERE.

 

Nathan Ybanez

In 1999, a district court judge sentenced 17-year-old Nathan Ybanez to die in prison after a jury convicted him of first degree murder in the death of his mother. Despite serious questions about whether his trial counsel afforded him effective assistance of counsel, the Colorado Supreme Court rejected his request for post-conviction relief in 2018.

However, on December 21, 2018, Governor Hickenlooper commuted his sentence, making him eligible for parole
December 1, 2020. Governor Hickenlooper also wrote to the parole board to express his belief that Mr. Ybanez is a worthy candidate for parole and to urge the parole board to release him.

At Mr. Ybanez’s original trial, his lawyer presented no evidence of the serious child abuse that had poisoned his young client’s childhood. It wasn’t until after the verdict that courts heard evidence about the verbal, sexual and physical abuse Mr. Ybanez had suffered as a young boy at both his parents’ hands. Perhaps, given the fact that Mr. Ybanez’s trial lawyer was being paid by his father, this omission isn’t surprising. But it underlines the importance of making sure that only experienced juvenile defense teams with the proper training undertake these types of serious cases, so that juries hear all of the circumstances that underlie such charges before deciding if the prosecution has proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Chad Williams, a partner at Davis, Graham & Stubbs, has worked tirelessly on Mr. Ybanez’s post-conviction litigation for years. Chad and his firm are heroes for taking their pro bono obligations seriously. Mr. Ybanez’s recent commutation would never have happened without his legal team’s commitment to their client, and without Mr. Ybanez’s own determination to spend the last 19 years in prison furthering his education and proving that he is someone who has much to offer society outside of prison walls.

Read the full Executive Order and Clemency Letter from Governor Hickenlooper HERE.