Editor's note: Charles Limbrick Jr., 41, who was released from prison in 2011 on orders from former Gov. Bill Ritter, had about 15 months remaining on parole when Colorado Springs police arrested him Wednesday, March 4, 2015.
Charles "Chuck" Limbrick Jr.’s childhood ended when he was 15 years old.
That’s when he shot his mother. A witness testified that he shot her twice with a .357 Magnum revolver. First in the hand, then in the head.
It was the defining moment in the Colorado Springs teenager’s life, transforming him from just another high schooler into a serious criminal who would eventually interest politicians, activists and lawyers. He was tried as an adult for the 1988 crime, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 40 years to life in prison. He was the youngest person in Colorado sent to an adult prison.
When he prosecuted Limbrick, John Suthers was the recently elected district attorney for the 4th Judicial District, which includes El Paso and Teller counties. Suthers prosecuted 51 juveniles as adults during his first four-year term, more than twice as many as were tried in the previous four years. His no-nonsense reputation has vaulted him into the office of state attorney general, to which he was elected in 2005.
In addition to trying juveniles as adults with gusto when he was district attorney, Suthers also worked to toughen laws aimed at young criminals. He helped write several bills subjecting violent youth to tougher treatment.
So he seems the law enforcement official least likely to stick his neck out for a man convicted of killing his mother. Yet in 1996, while still a DA, Suthers urged Gov. Roy Romer to grant Limbrick a limited commutation — a chance for an earlier parole hearing and, perhaps, an early release.
Interviewed a decade later, Suthers cited several reasons for recommending leniency in Limbrick’s case even though he had served only six years. One was that long before he reached the 40-year minimum of his sentence, Limbrick would have reached an age when violent behavior dramatically decreases, Suthers said. Another was that Limbrick’s family had forgiven him and wanted to see him free. And Suthers said Limbrick’s prison record was good. There was one other factor: Limbrick’s age at the time of his crime.
“I felt like Chuck had potential,” Suthers said. “This was a sad case, as heinous as the crime is.”
The Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility sits on the edge of Cañon City, its stone walls and curled barbed wire a grim greeting or farewell to travelers.
Limbrick, now 33, is as at home in this place as Suthers is in his roomy office in Denver. Limbrick has lived in prisons for nearly 18 years — the majority of his life — and he has elevated himself as much as his environment allows.
“He’s done very well, taking into consideration how young he was when he first came into the system, and his institutional adjustment,” said Bill Zalman, a prison official. Limbrick said initially he was not a perfect inmate, but in the early ’90s he began working with troubled youths who visited the prison through Shape Up, a deterrence program.
“These kids were so violent,” he remembered. “When they came, you could just feel that aura.”
When Limbrick met those kids, he said, his heart opened. He said he rediscovered his love of music by writing songs for the kids he counseled.
Since then he’s recorded two CDs of original Christian music. He is also deeply involved in the prison music program, where he provides guidance to new musicians and maintains equipment.
Arguably, his biggest contribution has been to the prison choirs. Though only the size of an average living room, the prison chapel used to be big enough to house the inmates interested in its spiritual services. But since Limbrick became involved with Praise Team, the prison’s choir, attendance has swelled from about 45 inmates at a given Sunday service to more than 90.
Inmates have been turned away for lack of space, and a Saturday service was introduced to help ease crowding. It quickly filled up, as well.
“Chuck is so incredibly gifted — he really, really is a leader, and he’s patient,” Chaplain Steve Browning said. “From a deeper, spiritual aspect, what Chuck has done is incredible.”
The prisoners who join the choir say it gives them a chance to redefine themselves.
“The men look at us like, ‘You’re on the Praise Team?’ So we have to walk the walk,” one inmate said.
Music, Limbrick said, boosts inmates’ self-esteem by giving them a sense of accomplishment.
“I think music can be a tool to rehabilitate people, but I think music can also be a crutch for people to hide behind,” he said. “It wasn’t until I understood, and I took the emphasis off of music and put it onto myself, that I was able to deal with my own stuff.”
Limbrick said that if he is released, he plans to pursue work in church music programs and to work with Convicts Unabated Influence on the Future Freedom of Sons and Daughters, a youth deterrent program.
THE AGE ISSUE
Colorado Springs activist Mary Ellen Johnson of the Pendulum Foundation is working to reduce life sentences for juvenile offenders and has taken a particular interest in Limbrick’s case. Even 40 years in prison is too long for a child offender, she said.
Bob Schwartz, executive director of the Philadelphiabased Juvenile Law Center, thinks age should be a bigger factor in sentencing.
“They’re not fully formed young adults just because they do something bad at a young age,” Schwartz said. “Most states recognize this in almost every sphere outside of juvenile justice — when you take a look at all the laws prohibiting kids under age 18 from doing very much.”
Others argue against leniency in such cases. Dianne Clements is the leader of Justice for All, a victims advocacy group, and her view of Limbrick’s case is cut and dried.
“At the time of the murder a jury looked at the facts of the case and sentenced him to life,” she said. “Twenty years later we’re turning back and Monday-morning quarterbacking, looking at this crime with a 20-year window where the heinousness has sort of dulled.”
Clements said she doesn’t think murderers can ever be rendered safe for society.
“Once you’re back in the free world,” she said, “whatever circumstances, or environment, or stress factors, or hate, or jealously, or whatever drove this individual to murder originally could present themselves again.”
According to the prosecution’s key witness, 15-year-old Christopher Marrow, Limbrick waited for his mother, Betty, to come home from work, then shot her twice.
Marrow, who said he was in another room during the shooting, testified that he helped Limbrick dispose of the gun and drive Betty Limbrick’s car several blocks away, where they abandoned it.
Marrow said the two boys then returned to the home and pretended to discover the body. The prosecution pointed to the coverup as evidence that Limbrick had no remorse. The defense, led by Gilbert Martinez, who is now the chief judge of the 4th Judicial District, argued that family problems caused Charles Limbrick to lose his mind temporarily. Witnesses testified that he believed his parents were headed for divorce, that his father abused his mother, and that both his parents were having extramarital affairs.
The prosecution painted a rosier picture of Charles Limbrick’s life, portraying him as the spoiled only son in a loving family. They said he killed his mother to escape her intrusions on his life.
Ultimately, no one but Charles Limbrick, who never testified, really knows what was going through his mind. He still declines to discuss that day.
“I have never told my story,” he said. “It doesn’t change anything. No matter how many times you tell a story it will never repair what’s been broken.”
Charles Limbrick’s father declined to comment, and two sisters could not be reached for comment. But his third sister, Ramona Brooks, said they all came to support him.
Charles Limbrick’s father forgave first, Brooks said; his sisters took longer.
“I think it took the kids a little bit of time because, after all, that was our mother,” she said.
Charles Limbrick never pushed them, Brooks said, but over the years she began to love and appreciate the man he was becoming.
Brooks turned to the Christian values Betty Limbrick had raised her with, and realized she wanted to forgive her little brother.
“When we finally got to sit down and talk, it was just — I looked at him like ‘wow,’” she said. “I looked at his hands, and I looked at his face, and I thought, ‘Wow, this kid is — he is definitely my mother’s child.”
Brooks said she is impressed by her brother’s gift with music and his positive attitude. She said that she and her family are ready to see him live his life outside of prison, and that he has a lot to contribute to society.
“I think Chuckie has done his time,” she said. “He has lost a huge, most-important time of his life, which — he’ll never recapture that. But I think that it’s time that he moved on with his life.”
In the late ’90s, Romer rejected Suthers’ request for commutation of Charles Limbrick’s sentence.
After Bill Owens was elected to succeed Romer, Suthers asked again, and again was denied. But last December, in his last weeks in office, Owens agreed to review the request for commutation.
The office of the current district attorney, John Newsome, urged Owens to reject it again. But on Dec. 30, Owens gave Limbrick a limited commutation, making him eligible, with continued good behavior, for parole in December 2016, about 12 years earlier than his original sentence called for.
The commutation brought little joy to Charles Limbrick, who will spend at least nine more years in prison.
“I believe that we all need to be held accountable for the things that we do,” he said. “But what about the people that are not changing and getting out all the time? They still go out smoking crack, or doing whatever they were doing before they came here, and they keep coming back for the same thing every single time. And they keep getting out. That’s why these places are so filled up now.
“But then there are a few people, several of us, that have made genuine efforts to change and have done great things with our time. And it’s evident through the way we live our life here. And yet still we have to go through all this drama in order to get our second chance.”
His attorneys, Dennis Hartley and Cynthia Tremaroli, declined to comment, but Kurt Pichon, a spokesman for Hartley’s office, said there had been discussion of challenging the commutation, hoping a judge will find that the governor has the right to reduce a sentence but not to change a parole date.
If that motion fails, his lawyers could argue that the sentence should be reduced for a variety of other reasons, including ineffective counsel at his original trial. These motions are rarely successful.
“Especially in homicide cases, it’s a huge hurdle to overcome,” said Schwartz, the Juvenile Law Center director. “Courts don’t want to give the impression that they’re making decisions on a technicality that would let a murderer go free.”
Nate Strauch, spokesman for Suthers, said it seems unlikely the commutation will be altered, noting it’s the opinion of the attorney general’s office that the governor has “complete discretion” in granting commutations.
Mark Noel, attorney for the governor’s office under Owens and Bill Ritter, said Owens wished to give Charles Limbrick an earlier parole date for a variety of reasons, including his youth at the time of the crime.
“He’s been given a gift, so if he wants to go into court and challenge it, fine,” Noel said. “When the governor grants an act of mercy and clemency, it’s generally met with a positive acknowledgment of thanks. So, if they choose to legally challenge it, you know, I don’t know what to say.”