What's at Stake
In September 2023, the ACLU, the ACLU of Colorado, The Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, the law firm Mintz Levin, and other partners filed an amicus brief with the Colorado Supreme Court arguing that mandatory life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences for strict liability felony murder are “cruel and unusual” in violation of the Colorado and U.S. Constitutions. The brief focuses on how these mandatory LWOP sentences drive racial injustice.
From 1990 to 2021, Colorado imposed mandatory LWOP sentences on people convicted of strict liability felony murder. Under this strict liability regime, if a person committed a specified felony resulting in a death, prosecutors could choose, at their discretion, to seek a conviction condemning that person to die in prison, even if they never meant to kill anyone. In September 2021, the Colorado General Assembly ended this practice, prospectively, by passing a law (SB 21-124) reclassifying strict liability felony murder from a class 1 felony with a mandatory sentence of LWOP, to a class 2 felony with a sentencing range of 16 to 48 years.
But this change is not retroactive. It leaves behind people, like Petitioner Wayne Sellers, who are condemned to die in prison by virtue of their sentencing dates.
The amicus brief submitted by the ACLU and its partners argues that this law also leaves behind a legacy of racial injustice. That is because the people against whom prosecutors secured LWOP sentences under the old regime are disproportionately people of color, again including Mr. Sellers. The amicus brief argues that, for three reasons, this legacy of racial injustice raises serious concerns about whether the LWOP sentences imposed under the old framework, but
still being served right now, are “cruel and unusual” in violation of the Colorado and
First, statistical evidence makes clear that Coloradans of color are disproportionately impacted by Colorado’s pre-SB 21-124 felony murder law and LWOP sentencing scheme—a framework that, before SB 21-124, placed Colorado among the minority of states that mandated LWOP for felony murder convictions. Second, the disproportionate imposition of LWOP for strict-liability felony murder on people of color appears to be due in large part to the disparate exercise of
the outsized discretion that the felony murder doctrine affords prosecutors. Third, considering SB 21-124 together with the prior regime’s legacy of racial injustice, the LWOP sentences imposed under the pre-2021 framework are incompatible with Colorado’s evolving standards of decency and are cruel and disproportionate.