Curtis Brooks was 15 when he and three other teenagers tried stealing a car in Aurora.
The car's owner was killed during the crime and, even though one of the other teens confessed to pulling the trigger, a jury convicted Brooks of felony murder and sentenced him to the mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Twenty three years later, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper granted Brooks clemency. He walked out of prison in 2019 and now lives in Maryland, where he works as a COVID-19 contact tracer.
Brooks testified Thursday in support of Colorado Senate Bill 124, which would reduce the penalty for felony murder from life in prison without the possibility of parole to anywhere from 16 years to 48 years in prison.
"The way felony murder seems to be used is just a blanket, you just throw that blanket over everyone, you don't take the time to give each individual their due," Brooks said.
Under Colorado law, a defendant can be charged with first-degree murder if a person is killed, even accidentally, in the commission of certain felonies, like burglary or robbery. It doesn't matter if the defendant was the actual killer; if they were involved in the felony, they can be also charged with murder.
State Sen. Pete Lee (D-Colorado Springs), the chair of the Judiciary Committee, sponsored Senate Bill 124. He called the current felony murder law a throwback to medieval times.
"The vast majority of people that I have talked to feel that that is wrong," Lee said. "It is unjust, unfair and incompatible with the principles of criminal justice that we aspire to and try to adhere to in Colorado."
But State Sen. Rob Gardner (R-El Paso County), who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, believes Colorado's felony murder law has an important deterrent effect and that any changes to it should be carefully considered.
"Felony murder as a concept…ensures that people are not going to be cavalier about who they hang out with and what those people are doing," Gardner said.
The Colorado Criminal Defense Bar estimates there are now as many as 150 people in Colorado prisons for felony murder. The bill before the legislature would only apply to cases going forward, so, even if the bill is signed into law, those 150 inmates will have to keep serving their life sentences.
Late Thursday afternoon, the Judiciary Committee approved the bill by a 4-1 vote. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill sometime in the next few weeks.
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