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 be- tween 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 al- low 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 remain- ing 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, including 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 differ- ent. 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.