Comeback Drive

Former pro football player Hollynd Hoskins keeps going until the final whistle for clients like Curtis Brooks

Published in 2021 Colorado Super Lawyers Magazine

Photo by: Paul Wedlake

Hollynd Hoskins was a rookie public defender in Arapahoe County in 1995 when she was tasked with representing Curtis Brooks, a homeless Black teen charged with the felony murder of a 24-year-old man in Aurora.

The crime was big news because of the age of the four assailants—three 15-year-olds and one 13-year-old—and the stark details of the killing: a bullet to the head for some cash and a car. What was lesser known was how Brooks had come to be involved. His three co-defendants, all with lengthy juvenile criminal histories together, had gone on a crime spree that day after the 13-year-old stole his father’s guns. They ended up at an arcade in an Aurora mall where they ran into Brooks, who had no criminal history and was living on the street after his abusive mother kicked him out. With a snowstorm that night, Brooks planned to stay in the arcade until the mall closed. The boys told him if he helped them steal a car, they’d give him a place to sleep. Brooks agreed and was handed a gun with instructions to fire a warning shot.

Outside, the boys surrounded Christopher Ramos after he used an ATM. Brooks fired his warning shot, and one of the other boys shot and killed Ramos. They were all quickly apprehended; unable to start Ramos’ car, a trail of footprints in the snow led police right to them. 

According to Colorado law, even though Brooks didn’t fire the shot that killed Ramos, he could be charged with first-degree murder for his part in the felony robbery that led to Ramos’ death. Hoskins sought a plea bargain for Brooks to no avail, and at trial he was sentenced to life without parole. 

Of the four defendants, only the two white kids received lesser sentences. The 13-year-old could not be charged as an adult and got five years. The other white defendant—who, unlike Brooks, had a criminal history—was given a plea bargain.

“That was my biggest heartbreak as a public defender,” Hoskins says. “Not only having the responsibility of defending a 15-year-old and then him being sentenced to life without parole and put into the adult system where he was assaulted and so afraid he stayed in solitary for 10 years; but it was a case I felt guilty about because of the unjust and racially disparate system, and because I was a part of it. I considered quitting and changing careers, but as a public defender you have to move on to the next case, so that’s what I did.”

Hoskins went on to handle more than 100 jury trials as lead trial deputy for the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender and as lead counsel and partner at what’s now Leventhal Puga Braley before starting a solo practice. 

But she never forgot about Brooks.

 

Hoskins grew up in Denver in a blended, interracial family after her white mom married a Black man in 1967. Hoskins was two. From an early age, she witnessed the racism her father and four Black siblings experienced. 

Her mom was active in the civil rights and women’s rights movements, and when Hoskins was in second grade her mom marched down to a meeting at Park Hill School to demand her athletic daughter be allowed to play on the boys-only soccer team that had turned her away. It worked, and Hoskins became one of the best players on the team. She later led East High School to a state championship in 1983; making the East High School Athletic Hall of Fame remains a point of pride.

“I loved team sports—not only the competition but the camaraderie,” she says. Hoskins played for the NCAA Division I Women’s All-Regional soccer team, and as an undergraduate at Metropolitan State University, planned to go into an athletic field like sports management, but an internship at the domestic violence unit of the Denver City Attorney’s Office changed those plans. “I felt this was it for me,” she says, “not only the chaos but helping people.” After Sturm College of Law, she went straight to the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender in 1992.

“You can always spot someone who is going to be a superstar, and Hollynd was one of those lawyers,” says Lisa Monet Wayne, who trained and supervised public defenders, and now runs an eponymous firm in Denver. “She had an incredible passion about defending people who really needed it, clients who were indigent and had had tough lives and never got a break. She was just a spitfire. She stood out very early.”

Since the Colorado public defender’s office received applicants from around the country, Wayne says they would weed out lawyers with an intensive boot camp training school that threw them into a series of difficult situations. Hoskins not only thrived, but gave other lawyers pep talks.

“She’d always be the one lifting people up,” Wayne says.

Hoskins became a lead trial deputy, working in both the Denver and Arapahoe County offices, being sent back and forth to handle the death penalty and highest profile cases, and in 2001, a big case came to her. She represented Chad Garcia, a 21-year-old man facing the death penalty after a shooting at a party that killed three people and left two injured. First, she set about convincing the DA, future Governor Bill Ritter, to take the death penalty off the table. 

“It’s such an emotionally charged profession,” she says. “Public defenders feel they are fighting unjust laws, unjust sentencing, unjust prosecutorial charging decisions, and district attorneys are representing victims of violent crime, so it’s really easy to get lost in that. I found it was really important, even though it’s adversarial, to cross the aisle and negotiate with the district attorney’s office, and present mitigation, and not take no as a final answer but keep going back on behalf of your client.”

Ritter had not yet faced off against Hoskins, but she had a good reputation. “She had the respect of my office as a fierce advocate for her clients, but also somebody you could trust when you cut a deal,” he says. “I did negotiate with her on a death penalty case on the question of whether or not to seek the death penalty, and I decided not to because of the thorough work she put into identifying all the mitigating factors that informed me over time about the chances of getting a death verdict. I felt I could trust everything she had done as a person with integrity. When she brings focus to something, it is razor sharp.”

Garcia’s three-week trial began in June 2002. “I really felt all the evidence showed he was present at the party but that he was not responsible for any of the shootings,” she says.

The jury agreed. Garcia was acquitted on all counts.

“That [case] had a huge impact on me,” says Hoskins, who has stayed in touch with Garcia. “That was a case of complete teamwork in acquitting a young 21-year-old and giving him a second chance at life.”

Even so, 12 years of death penalty cases can take a toll, and in 2004, Hoskins joined Leventhal, Brown & Puga, where she had clerked as a law student. Her goal: to apply her trial skills while helping injured clients against corporate hospitals and insurance companies, and to finally be able to pay off her student loans. She still made time to mentor young public defenders and take pro bono cases.

“She had the scrappy outsider’s background,” says Lorraine Parker of Parker Lipman, one of Hoskins’ mentors and co-counsels. “We’re definitely the underdogs as plaintiffs’ lawyers in this field. I have a feeling that part felt very comfortable for her. She just had such an energetic and unique approach to a case. She uncovers facts and evidence most people wouldn’t find out of sheer persistence—just talking to people. She’ll pick up the phone or get in the car and drive out and meet with people, and that personal touch is what has made her such a success.”

Parker says Hoskins was beloved around the office because she never took anyone for granted. “She’s always cracking a joke and has the most infectious laugh,” Parker says, “So yeah, she’s a great lawyer, but the best part is she’s fun to hang out with.”

Natalie Brown, now of Franklin D. Azar and Associates, supervised Hoskins and says she has the biggest heart and one of the hardest workers she knows. Brown tried Hoskins first medical malpractice trial with her, which involved a mother and baby who had died at birth.

“She had excellent cross-examination skills, and she had enough humility to understand that her direct examination skills needed some improvement and was very open to learning and being coached,” Brown says. “Hollynd’s always searching for ways to make herself better, to make her case better.”

Former Denver District Court Chief Judge Robert Hyatt, who is now a mediator at Judicial Arbiter Group, witnessed Hoskins’ transition from criminal to civil practice firsthand as the presiding judge over one of her homicide trials and later a multimillion-dollar medical malpractice case.

“I think what she did was take those skills that made her such a remarkable criminal defense lawyer and brought them to bear in the civil arena—that same creativity, professionalism, intellect,” he says. “I always genuinely admired her advocacy. She always had her clients’ best interest at heart, never deviated from that for a minute. She was just determined to make sure that they got justice. She was an absolute pleasure to have in the courtroom. When she sets her mind on something, she goes full speed ahead.”

Hoskins’ civil cases before Hyatt were on behalf of 16 patients who had been infected with hepatitis C at Rose Medical Center by a heroin-addicted surgical tech who had been stealing syringes of fentanyl, injecting herself and then returning the syringes, refilled with saline. 

In addition to compensation for her clients, Hoskins felt it was important to seek systemic changes. The hospital was receptive to the idea, but the anesthesiologists maintained it was not their responsibility to safeguard drugs. So Hoskins and her clients decided to resolve claims with the former while continuing to pursue litigation against the latter.

“I really believe these patients did a good thing by continuing to want to make changes so this didn’t happen to anyone else,” Hoskins says.

That is also Hoskins’ intention with a recent case against Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Hoskins represents the family of Olivia Gant, whose mother Kelly Renee Turner had Munchausen syndrome and invented symptoms Olivia suffered from. Beginning when she was a “gregarious, healthy, amazing” 2-year-old in 2012, Hoskins says Olivia received over 20 unnecessary hospital procedures, including a colostomy bag, feeding tube and heavy doses of narcotics, from 30 different providers while she also appeared regularly in hospital advertising. Hoskins says there were reports from nurses and doctors voicing concerns that the child wasn’t really sick, but those were kept internal, and in 2017 Olivia was sent to hospice where she was starved for three weeks until she died.

When Turner began bringing her other child to the hospital for treatments, that’s when Hoskins says the hospital fulfilled their mandatory reporting obligation and the abuse was discovered. Turner was charged with first-degree murder in Douglas County. 

Hoskins is representing the estate of Olivia Gant through her own practice, Hollynd Law, which she founded in 2019. 

Having missed the camaraderie of organized sports, Hoskins found a new love in pickleball. She and her partner Kirsten began playing as a doubles team and used Hoskins’ brief retirement to win a gold medal at the regionals tournament and qualify for nationals (which was canceled due to COVID).

“When I took this time off, the cases and people kept calling,” she says. “I did not know how to say no, so I opened Hollynd Law.” Working as a solo practitioner is a shift, but she’s enjoying limiting her workload so she has time to fully dive into the records herself for the select medical malpractice and criminal cases she takes on, and for pickleball.

In any context, Wayne—Hoskins’ first mentor—says she’s fierce and a pioneer.

“Her personal values align with how she is in the world,” Wayne says. “She’s always for the downtrodden and underdog. She should be an inspiration to young people. Hollynd didn’t go to an Ivy League school. She comes from a very diverse background, and among whatever gifts her parents gave her was the gift of caring and recognizing the best in everybody. This is her calling.”

 

In 2012, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles was unconstitutional, Hoskins got a call from Curtis Brooks’ newly appointed lawyer, who was looking to file for ineffective assistance of counsel. 

“She said, ’Good, do it. I’ll testify I was not very effective in the trial,’” Brooks remembers. “From there we started a dialogue and I expressed I would like her help on the case, and she was willing. She volunteered her efforts.”

He adds: “Even though [the first trial] didn’t work out, I never believed she didn’t care or she didn’t try to do her best.”

At that time, Brooks was being told he could not file for clemency because of his ongoing litigation regarding resentencing, but Hoskins appealed to then-Governor John Hickenlooper for a waiver to be able to pursue both avenues at the same time. “Nobody else was even thinking about it,” Brooks says. “Without that we wouldn’t have been able to file in the first place.”

Hoskins spent six years working pro bono toward Brooks’ clemency through a series of legal challenges. She also told anyone who would listen about the miraculous person Brooks had become—learning languages and getting his college education (which Hoskins paid for)—and recruited allies like former Governor Ritter.

Back in 2011, Ritter had denied Brooks’ application for a commutation of his sentence. After he left office, former Denver District Court Judge Federico Alvarez asked him to sit down with him and Hoskins to discuss his decision. “Over the next few years, she inundated me with information about Curtis and the things I had pinpointed as issues that kept him from having his sentence commuted and efforts he had made since then,” Ritter says. 

She even asked Ritter if he would meet with Brooks personally.

“It’s a bold move having a former governor sit down with your client,” Ritter says. “That got me to a place of feeling very comfortable about the role I eventually played in helping him—that I could speak to the decision I made in 2011 and why I believed it was different now.” 

In December 2018, Hickenlooper granted Brooks clemency. In July 2019, at 40 years old, Brooks stepped out of the Limon Correctional Facility after 24 years in prison. Hoskins was there waiting to pick him up and bring him to a celebration at her home.

“Hollynd’s advocacy for Curtis Brooks was, in my mind, instrumental in him ultimately having his sentence commuted,” Ritter says. The Colorado Trial Lawyers Association agreed and honored her with its Case of the Year Award.

Brooks is now a contact tracer in Maryland, and is engaged to be married. When Hoskins married her longtime partner at a small, pandemic-safe ceremony in Wisconsin in 2020, he was among the guests.  

“This isn’t a case where she came back and did her part and rode off into the sunset,” Brooks says. “She still checks up on me and talks to me. She cares for me almost like a mother. I truly do care for her deeply, and anything she ever needed from me she would have in a heartbeat. She’s just a wonderful woman.”


Fly Route of the Valkyrie

In 2001, Hoskins decided to try out for the Colorado Valkyries of the newly formed Women’s Professional Football League. “At this point I was 35 years old and I’d had 19 knee surgeries from soccer, but I grew up playing flag football and loving football, and I thought, ‘Well, why not?’” Hoskins says. “Over 500 women came to try out, a lot of them 18, 19, 20. Here I am, 35 with a death penalty case and a high caseload.”

She made the team as a starting wide receiver and traveled for games on the weekends while working the Garcia case.

“That was kind of a crazy year.”

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