Christina Lee, Photography Editor

Yale Law School clinical lecturer Daniel Loehr filed an amicus brief last month in a case before the Colorado Supreme Court based on historical work that he conducted while at the Law School. 

Loehr, who worked with student research assistants Balen Essak-Hernandez LAW ’25 and Courtney Perales LAW ’25 on the brief, seeks to demonstrate how the habitual criminal law in Colorado — a law that imposes harsher penalties on defendants with prior convictions — is rooted in the eugenics movement. According to Loehr, the brief illustrates this by tracing the history of habitual criminal law.

“Most histories of habitual criminal laws begin in the 1980s and 1990s and the laws are described as emerging from the tough-on-crime era. I noticed that in fact many of the laws emerged much earlier, as part of the eugenics movement,” Loehr told the News. “We realized that this history could be helpful to courts that are reviewing habitual criminal laws, so we agreed to share the history through an amicus brief.”

The case, Ward v. the People of Colorado, involves an individual who robbed an ice cream store in the early 1990s. Colorado charged him under the habitual criminal law and he was sentenced to life in prison, where he still remains today. According to Loehr, the individual has been in prison for 31 years, more than half of his life.

In 2019, the Colorado Supreme Court established a rule in the case Wells-Yates v. People that limited the state’s power to impose the harshest habitual criminal punishments. The court held that when reviewing sentences, courts should look to Colorado’s evolving standards of decency on what punishment should be attached to a crime.

The petitioner in Ward v. the People of Colorado is arguing that his sentence should be reconsidered in light of the 2019 Wells-Yates decision; however, the state is taking the position that the Wells-Yales decision is not retroactive, meaning that it would not apply to sentences prior to when Wells-Yates was decided.

Loehr said that the issue before the court in this case is whether or not Wells-Yates should be applied to the individual in this case, and therefore, whether his sentence should be reviewed.

“Because Wells-Yates trained its attention on evolving standards of decency, the amicus brief provides the historical context of Colorado’s habitual criminal law to show how much has changed,” Loehr told the News. “In particular, the brief documents the eugenic roots of habitual criminal laws, and how they were premised on the belief that so-called ‘habitual criminals’ were an inferior subspecies that should be prevented from reproducing.”

Loehr told the News that Essak-Hernandez and Perales have done “extensive research” for the brief.  He said that they spent the fall going state by state and tracing statues back a hundred years, using HeinOnline, a historical archive that provides users with access to statutes from all fifty states. 

In addition, Loehr said, the students also helped him edit and finalize the brief before it was released.

“As someone who came into law school with a background in criminology, I was specifically looking for an opportunity to continue engaging in questions around criminal justice reform,” Perales told the News. “This project seemed like a natural fit and also addressed a topic area that I was not familiar with.”

Perales said in the months leading up to the brief, the team worked to identify original habitual offender laws across the 50 states, focusing on the period from the late 1800s to the early-mid 1900s to collect legislative materials, articles and laws that referenced eugenics ideologies of the time.

She added that the brief presents “key findings” on the origins of habitual offender statutes with the eugenics movement in the United States, showing how eugenicists sought to incapacitate those believed to be “inherently criminal” by influencing the passage of habitual offender and sterilization laws.

“I am hoping the brief raises awareness around the racist underpinnings of these laws and challenges their deployment to lengthen sentences for defendants,” Perales said.

Essak-Hernandez told the News that a lot of the work he did for this brief was looking at state statutes and tracing them back to the eugenics movement. He added that he worked with Perales to see the national scope of what different habitual offender sentencing laws look like throughout the country.

“We would take one of these laws and just trace it back through time, whether that be using online resources, or print resources, because not everything is digitized,” Essak-Hernandez told the News. “We would look through the archives of the statutes, looking at when they were passed, and when they were amended, seeing if the timeframe that they were passed lined up with the eugenics movement.”

Essak-Hernandez also said that this brief is more than just about the case in Colorado as it looks at habitual criminal laws throughout the country.

Loehr told the News that the team collaborated with John Nann, a lecturer in legal research and librarian at the Law School. Loehr said Nann provided guidance on conducting statutory history research and identifying resources. Additionally, Alison Burke, a library services assistant at the Lillian Goldman Law Library at Yale Law School, assisted in swiftly locating out-of-print books and articles from a century ago concerning the correlation between eugenics and habitual criminal law.

Overall, Loehr, Perales and Essak-Hernandez stressed the significance of tracing the historical trajectory of laws governing the American populace. Loehr further underscored the importance of this brief for forthcoming legal cases across the country.

“We collectively inherit laws that were passed by our predecessors, and then we enforce them, often without understanding what the laws were intended to do and what ideas they were premised on,” Loehr said. “If those premises no longer hold true, then the laws ought to be reconsidered. Habitual criminal laws were premised on the idea that individuals inherit criminality and cannot be cured of it, and thus need to be prevented from reproduction, through incarceration. That idea is horrific, and yet we continue to enforce habitual criminal laws. I hope that courts and policymakers who learn this history will be able to make better-informed decisions about whether we should continue to enforce eugenic era habitual criminal laws.”

Loehr received his law degree at the New York University School of Law.

Correction, April 13: This article has been updated to correct the title of Daniel Loehr.

Adam Walker is the University Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered Yale Law School for the University desk. Originally from Long Island, New York, he is a rising junior in Branford College double majoring in Economics and American Studies.