Editor’s Note: People v. Curtis Brooks is one of four cases considered for the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association’s Case of the Year Award. Law Week will be featuring each of the cases over the coming weeks.
Hollynd Hoskins faced odds stacked heavily against her when she first took on the case of Curtis Brooks as a green public defender in 1995: Brooks at age 15 charged as an adult with first-degree murder committed by someone else he was with. A confession about his involvement Hoskins believes shouldn’t have been ruled voluntary because his abusive mother coerced him into it. A required sentence at the time of life without parole for juveniles convicted of felony murder. A court system Hoskins saw as biased against minorities.
Hoskins said she has seen racial bias play out in Brooks’ case: One of the four boys involved in the shooting who is white received a plea deal and is out of prison. Another boy who is white was 13 at the time and went through the juvenile court system. Brooks and the shooter, both black, are the only two of the four still in prison.
When Brooks did get convicted, despite Hoskins’ attempts to secure him a plea bargain and get his confession thrown out, the disappointment crushed Hoskins.
But she marched on with her career as a public defender until 2004, and she never forgot Brooks. And Hoskins — now a personal injury litigator for Leventhal & Puga — reconnected with him in 2012 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without parole sentences are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.
Hoskins encountered six more years of obstacles in Brooks’ case between 2012 and when Brooks ultimately received clemency from Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2018: A 2015 Colorado Supreme Court ruling that Miller v. Alabama did not apply retroactively, though the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled in Montgomery v. Alabama that it did. Brooks’ ineligibility to apply for clemency because he had not yet exhausted his appeals.
A constitutional challenge by 18th District Attorney George Brauchler to a 2016 Colorado sentencing law that juveniles convicted of felony murder between 1990 and 2006 could receive 30 to 50 years with credit, and an order from then-Chief Judge Carlos Samour deeming the law unconstitutional.
But Hoskins secured a waiver to allow Brooks to apply for clemency in January 2018 while the appeals of Samour’s order on the statute were pending, and she and her appellate team worked against time as Hickenlooper’s remaining months as governor ticked down. By the time Brooks received clemency, his appeals had garnered support at various stages from members of Colorado’s legal community including 2nd District Attorney Beth McCann, former Gov. Bill Ritter and the trial judge in his original case.
Hoskins’ work representing Brooks has earned her a nomination for the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association’s Case of the Year along with other attorneys who aided in the appeals, incuding Dru Nielsen, Ashley Ratliff and Sean Connelly. In advance of the CTLA’s awards banquet May 9, Hoskins discussed her years of work for Brooks and their emotional impact on her as a lawyer.
Law Week: I imagine being involved with a case that has this many tough factors and that you’ve been involved with for so long, it’s not possible to not get involved emotionally. What makes an emotional case like this hard, and are there any benefits to being really emotionally attached to a case?
Hollynd Hoskins: I was a brand-new public defender when I got into this case, so I was originally the second chair. And there was a more experienced first chair in the case. And that lawyer had a number of deaths in the family that were going on through litigation up through trial, so based upon my first chair’s personal tragedies, I had to take more of a first-chair role, and I did the closing argument.
At that point, unfortunately, as a young, inexperienced lawyer facing all of these injustices and having the responsibility of a 15 year old looking at life without parole, the emotion was a detriment.
And at this point, I had spent two years with him when it went to trial in 1997. I really was attached, because you’re going to go to the jail more when you’re dealing with a 15 year old. And you’re also dealing with a 15 year old who was impetuous, immature, acted like he didn’t care.
We were litigating motions, trying to suppress the confession, doing all that before we went to trial. And during those two years, I was desperately asking for a plea bargain and being told, repeatedly, no. Looking back on a trial career of 27 years, if you could ever substitute your performance in a later case in a past case, I would definitely do it. I think emotion is good. It brings passion. It makes me get up early in the morning. It makes me work harder. Those are all the good things about passion.
Sometimes as a younger lawyer, or even now if something is so unjust or insurmountable, the emotions can affect your performance. [They] can be a detriment in some circumstances.
LW: After the verdict, with this whole bundle of emotions and all of the factors that were complicating the case, did you question whether you had done a good enough job?
HH: Absolutely. It was crushing. I felt responsible. I felt guilty, and actually I felt complicit in this unjust and racially disparate system just by being a participant. And I definitely felt horribly inadequate and that I should have done something different. I actually considered quitting and changing careers.
LW: What dissuaded you from quitting?
HH: I still had some faith that [on appeal] the confession should have been involuntary because juveniles had the right to have the counsel of a parent or custodian present, and his crack-addicted mother who had abused him had a conflict.
So I still had faith that the Court of Appeals would reverse that decision and throw out the confession. To be honest, I just had to pick myself and go on to the next client and the next fight and try to learn from this experience while I still held out hope that the Court of Appeals would find that it was [an error] to allow his involuntary confession to the jury.
But then the Court of Appeals issued their opinion upholding the district court’s order that the confession was voluntary, and they upheld the life-without-parole sentence. And at this point, I continued on with my career as a public defender, attempting to fight what I saw as injustice and to attempt to represent people who were indigent and deserved the same representation as people who had money. And I just thought, I’ve got to get better.
LW: When you were having that doubt, what was it based in? Was it based in wondering if you weren’t cut out for the career or was it based in thinking you worked [so hard] in this case and in the end, it didn’t matter?
HH: I think it was multi-factorial. Certainly, being a brand-new public defender, the guilt, the responsibility, and as I indicated before, I actually felt complicit in it.
So it was the personal toll of all of these injustices. And in dealing with that, being so outraged every day and still having people asking you the same question: How do you do what you do? How do you represent people who are guilty?
[In some cases] you did a great job, you provided a good defense, and the jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual was guilty. But they were appropriately charged, and they received a fair and appropriate sentence. If you’re working in that system, you can feel good about that.
But when it’s the opposite … and in [Curtis Brooks’] case, he never should have been charged as an adult. Never should have been charged with felony murder. Absolutely never should have received a mandatory life without parole sentence.
Dealing with all of that, it was incredibly traumatic. And yet I didn’t want to give up.
LW: This time around through this whole clemency process, obviously the issues were different than when you represented [Curtis Brooks] the first time. But being a more experienced lawyer, what lessons did you bring to representing him this second time around?
HH: I guess I just feel like I have more tools in the box. As a young public defender, it wasn’t going to help with Curtis Brooks, unfortunately. I had tried to sit down and get a plea bargain time and time again, but unfortunately they weren’t listening.
But now I think having been a trial lawyer for 27 years, you don’t just have one speed. You don’t just have one voice. You learn to just continue to beg, plead, convince. I never would have thought of going and asking to sit down with a retired trial judge who had sentenced somebody to life without parole.
(Note: The trial judge in Brooks’ original case supported his bid for clemency after Hoskins reached out.)
Curtis Brooks restored my faith in justice. And he really restored my faith in the ability of rehabilitation.
Everyone then thought, if you’re going to put a 15-year-old kid in an adult prison, and he did 10 years solitary confinement, we’re never going to want him out. Because you’re basically throwing him away, and everyone would be afraid to let him out.
Then this many years later, I enjoy talking to [Brooks] every day. He’s kind. He has a sense of humor. He is the definition of resiliency. And so throughout this process with Curtis, I gained more by continuing to fight for him than Curtis has gained from me.
This was definitely one of my most devastating, hardest losses that 24 years later is one of the best victories.
— Julia Cardi