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News / Northwest

Kimonti Carter was freed from life in prison. Prosecutors want to send him back.

By Nina Shapiro, The Seattle Times
Published: February 4, 2024, 6:02am

SEATTLE — Kimonti Carter sat on a West Seattle porch waiting for his new life to begin.

No one was expecting him yet. He looked around, marveling at people walking about unencumbered by time limits and lines.

“No more living in a box,” he thought.

Carter was once condemned to spend the rest of his life in prison, where he became the subject of a documentary, “Since I Been Down.” The film portrays the rough Tacoma environment Carter grew up in, his transformation in prison and an education program he founded there.

A remarkable legal ruling resulted in his release. And a remarkable legal case could send him back to prison after more than a year and a half of freedom.

In 1997, two months after he turned 18, Carter fired upon a car of young people he mistook for rival gang members and killed a college student named Corey Pittman. Carter was convicted of aggravated murder due to a rarely used portion of a law about shootings from or near a car, and received a mandatory life without parole sentence.

But the state Supreme Court ruled in the 2021 Monschke case that such sentences are unconstitutional for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds — part of a rethinking of culpability and punishment for young people as science has revealed more about their developing brains. A Pierce County Superior Court judge’s resentencing in July 2022 led to Carter’s release that same month.

He had been incarcerated for 25 years.

Since then, the now 44-year-old has found work providing resources and mentorship to people involved with the criminal legal system, moved into a Central District town house and met Kristina Jorgensen, who’s active in the prison reform movement. They recently celebrated their one-year anniversary as a couple.

Yet, in a state Supreme Court case whose decision is imminently due, the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office is appealing Carter’s new sentence and arguing he should be sent back to prison — potentially for the rest of his life.

It’s a case revealing tensions over an increased willingness by courts and lawmakers to consider easing sentences handed down in previous eras, when a tough-on-crime ethos ruled.

Washington is dealing with multiple edicts requiring resentencing, including the Legislature’s 2021 revision of the state’s three strikes law, dropping second-degree robbery as a strike; the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision that same year invalidating hundreds of thousands of drug convictions; and a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting juveniles from receiving mandatory life without parole sentences.

Prosecutors’ objections to Carter’s resentencing raise some common questions: Is there a point to keeping people in prison who have clearly rehabilitated? What about the victims and promises to their families?

But these are usually questions asked when people are seeking release from prison, not when they’re already out.

Such cases do occasionally occur, according to Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor who writes a blog about sentencing policy. They present a “unique violation of due process” in the minds of some academics, who hold “there are some special rights that a person ought to have once released,” Berman said.

At the same time, he added, if a lower court made a mistake — or worse, flagrantly violated the law — many people would seek a correction, as Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett contends she’s doing in Carter’s case.

“The humanity of Kimonti Carter is not lost on me,” she said. “But I also believe there’s a huge principle at play here.”

Robnett and her staff argue judges lacked authority to resentence Carter and a woman resentenced and released for the same reason, Shawn Reite. Only the Legislature can make sentencing laws, and it has yet to give direction to judges by revising the aggravated murder statute as it applies to young adults.

“We need to know what the rules are because we do have a community to answer to, and it’s important to us that we’re able to be consistent and follow the law,” said Diane Clarkson, one of Robnett’s deputies and an original prosecutor in Carter’s 1998 murder case. “It is not personal. It is never personal.”

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said he believes he has momentum this session behind a bill that would provide legislative clarity, sentencing 18- to 20-year-olds convicted of aggravated murder to anywhere from 30 years to life, which at the low end is five years above the juvenile minimum for that crime. The bill would also greenlight resentencing.

House Bill 1396 and the Carter case could potentially affect about 50 people sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as young adults. Sixteen received new sentences after the state Supreme Court’s 2021 decision regarding such sentences and five were released, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Carter’s new life may be tenuous, but in some ways it’s a source of wonder. On a recent January day, he sat at a table between his comfortable living room, where he sometimes holds work and community meetings, and his kitchen counter, graced with artificial yellow orchids.

“The crazy part about it is,” he said, “since I was 11 years old, this is the longest I’ve ever been free.”

‘Being armed was just expected’

Carter ran away from home at 11.

As he describes it, he was living in poverty. His father was gone. His mother did the best she could to raise five children but wasn’t often around. Gangs dominated certain Tacoma neighborhoods with lawlessness and a deadly rivalry imported from California. Carter fell early under their influence.

He moved into an abandoned house occupied on and off by dozens of kids.

The doors were unlocked, the windows broken, Carter said. “But they still charged us with burglary.”

He racked up other charges as he progressed through adolescence: robbery, motor vehicle theft, drug-related offenses.

On May 24, 1997, at about 1 a.m., he and four others left a Hilltop neighborhood drug house.

It was rival gang territory. “Being armed was just expected,” Carter said.

When they came to a stop sign and saw another car full of young people, someone in Carter’s car branded them as the enemy. “I fired off quite a few shots,” he said.

MaShana Davis, one of those attacked, recalled she, Pittman and three others had been to a “Scream” movie and gone afterward to hang out at a friend’s house. It was getting late.

Davis, then 18 and studying criminal justice at night, worked mornings as a Jack in the Box manager. It’s time to go, she told them.

In the front seat when the bullets came, Davis twisted her body to protect her 16-year-old cousin behind her. Her cousin wasn’t hit, but Davis suffered a wound to her back.

Before the pain set in, Davis ran to a corner store with three others, then rushed back to the car when they realized Pittman wasn’t with them.

He had been hit in the head. When they found him, Davis said, “he was already gone.”

On summer break from Alabama State University, Pittman, 19, had studied political science and hoped to become a lawyer. At Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, he had been president of the Martin Luther King Jr. club, senior class treasurer and homecoming king.

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“Corey was everything I wasn’t,” Carter acknowledged in an apology to Pittman’s family at his resentencing hearing.

In prison, Carter spoke of Pittman often, according to a man incarcerated alongside him, Willie Nobles, who testified at the hearing. “He has been so remorseful that sometimes I couldn’t understand the gravity of it,” Nobles said.

Even so, members of Pittman’s family testified in favor of keeping Carter in prison, and some took issue with the way they felt Carter was portrayed as a victim of his environment.

“We were in the same place. We made it. We went to college,” said Pittman’s sister, Twilyne Wallace.

Carter was young at the time, but “so was I,” Davis said in an interview. While she’s forgiven Carter in an effort to move on with her life, she also feels Carter should serve more time in prison.

Meanwhile, Carter moved on with his in ways few could have expected. Even as she argued for his re-imprisonment, Clarkson, the prosecutor, told The Seattle Times: “It’s beautiful what Kimonti has accomplished.”

A prison closet becomes a classroom

Carter held champagne. Nearby was a lavish buffet that included chicken, ribs and potato salad. An array of supporters had turned out to welcome him home.

But Carter’s message to them wasn’t just celebratory. He spoke of the harm he and others he knew had caused, and the need for them to hold each other accountable.

It took Carter a while to come to that realization. Joining the Black Prisoners’ Caucus helped. The organization, with chapters inside and outside Washington’s prisons, is devoted to helping incarcerated people, their families and communities.

He recently recalled that formative experience, where he said he was “sitting around with guys who were sentenced before I was even born.” Even if they weren’t going home, ever, they were owning their actions and striving to be better people. “Sometimes, that takes strength,” he said.

Carter became a leader of the caucus at the Monroe Correctional Complex, where he was held for 11 years. Caught with a cellphone, he was transferred to the Clallam Bay Corrections Center.

It was a violent place, he said. “I wanted to be able to help organize Black men in a constructive way.” So he founded a caucus chapter there. He also turned to education. At Monroe, he had participated in the University Behind Bars program. But that wasn’t available at Clallam Bay.

Carter drew up a proposal for a Taking Education and Creating History (TEACH) program and turned a closet into a classroom. Incarcerated men created the curriculum and taught each other. The classes multiplied as they caught on, including college-level reading and writing, math, African studies, English as a second language and more.

The program negotiated a tuition discount with Seattle Central College for correspondence courses, which allowed participants to earn college credit. Carter earned five credits shy of an associate degree.

Professors offered to help, sometimes coming to the prison to teach. People of different ethnicities and gang affiliations signed up for classes, overcoming previous conflict as they studied together.

Corrections officials were impressed, and some wrote letters on Carter’s behalf to the judge weighing his resentencing, Stanley Rumbaugh.

Rumbaugh mentioned those and many other letters praising Carter as he explained his reasoning before an overflowing courtroom two summers ago. The judge noted Carter’s impoverished background and the “radical change” he had undertaken, “done at a time when there was no reason for him to expect that he would ever be released from total confinement.”

Rumbaugh said he was also obliged to abide by the state Supreme Court opinion saying “no meaningful neurological bright line exists” between 17 and 18, or for that matter 17 and 20.

Adding he wanted to be on the right side of rapidly evolving case law, Rumbaugh resentenced Carter to 340 months with credit for time served. The judge figured Carter had about a year to go, giving prosecutors time to appeal while he was still incarcerated.

In fact, with time taken off for good behavior, Carter got out a couple of weeks later, which is why nobody was expecting him that day in West Seattle.

‘Living proof of second chances’

At a table pushed against windows in a spare Renton meeting room, Carter and Jorgensen sit hunched over computers. On a Zoom call are participants in a group Jorgensen founded to help people advocate for loved ones who are incarcerated or involved in court cases.

They talk about writing letters of support and rallying community members to show up at hearings. Carter writes court dates in a notebook so he can do so himself.

This is the path Carter chose upon leaving prison: supporting others navigating the criminal legal system, or who still have a chance to avoid it.

He does this on his own time, like on this Wednesday evening, but also as part of two full-time jobs he juggles. One is for the state Office of Public Defense, providing outreach to people eligible to take advantage of the Blake decision about drug convictions.

Carter also speaks at training sessions for the office’s lawyers about how to communicate with clients in prison. “Who better than Kimonti Carter?” asked Larry Jefferson, the office’s director.

Meanwhile, Carter works as a case manager for a Renton-based program called Young Bulls Fatherhood Academy, mentoring 18- to 24-year-olds, some involved with gangs. “Nobody wants to work with these youngsters because these youngsters aren’t listening,” said program manager LaRon Burris.

But he said they listen to Carter.

To many, Burris added, “he’s living proof of what second chances look like.”

Against that backdrop, the state Supreme Court heard arguments in September on the legitimacy of his resentencing.

One of the toughest questions for defense attorney Jeff Ellis was whether Rumbaugh had authority to resentence Carter on all charges, including several counts of assault. Only the sentence for aggravated murder has been deemed unconstitutional.

Ellis said he believed case law allowed the judge that discretion.

Justices displayed more skepticism toward prosecutors, however, because of their argument that the only alternative to a sentence of life without parole is life with parole.

A central problem: Washington has no parole in most cases

The Legislature could change that, but then again they might not, rendering a life with parole sentence essentially meaningless.

As Carter awaits a Supreme Court decision that could drastically curtail the rest of his life, he seems remarkably calm.

“All I can say is it’s outside of my control,” he said. “I don’t think you can do anything more to me that hasn’t already been done.”