Two Individuals Credited with ‘Rehabilitating and Changing’ Get Second Chance after Washington State Supreme Court’s 2024 Decision

By Vy Tran

OLYMPIA, WA — The Washington State Supreme Court ruled 6-3 last week Kimonti Carter and Shawn Reite will remain free after they were released in 2022 from their life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences.

The court in 2022 “did not err” when it ruled the sentences were “unconstitutional for their age group,” Washington Supreme Court Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis wrote in Thursday’s decision, noting the issue is whether or not the judiciary had the authority to overwrite the initial sentences with “determinate sentencing” without legislative approval.

A “determinate sentence” is a “jail or prison sentence that has a definite length and can’t be reviewed or changed by a parole board or any other agency,” Cornell Law defines. “The judge has little discretion in sentencing and must follow the sentence guidelines determined by the law.” It is crucial to note that most states currently rely on indeterminate sentences.

Advocates of determinate sentencing claim it increases “equity and predictability,” the U.S. Department of Justice wrote in pleadings, adding results from collected data “found that determinate-sentenced inmates did feel they were treated more equitably in the sentencing process and were more certain of their release dates.”

The ruling on May 23, 2024, could “potentially affect about 50 people in the state sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed between the ages of 18 and 20,” Seattle Times staff reporter Catalina Gaitán wrote.

Since the state Supreme Court’s 2021 decision, 16 incarcerated were resentenced and five were released as of Jan. 2024, according to the state corrections department.

“In 2021, we held in Monschke that the life without release mandate… is unconstitutional when applied to 18- to 20-year-old offenders because it denies discretion to consider the mitigating qualities of youth,” Washington Supreme Court Justice Montoya-Lewis explained.

“Because these amendments do not impact the statutory language relied on by this court, we refer to the current statute… in violation of constitutional cruel and unusual punishment principles,” the justice added.

According to the facts of the case, Carter was raised by a single mother in the Tacoma Hilltop neighborhood, surrounded by violence, poverty, drugs, and gang activity, and he was initiated into and involved with a gang starting at 11 or 12 as a means of survival.

Carter’s mother was threatened by the gang members when she insisted Carter go to school, so he never got the opportunity to attend out of fear for her safety. Despite the setbacks, Montoya-Lewis noted he still earned his GED while being held in juvenile detention facilities.

The plaintiff from the 1990 case testified that Reite was living with her husband, who had a history of drinking and becoming violent when upset, when she committed aggravated first degree murder in 1988.

According to State v. Reite, Reite was 20 years old when she shot and killed her mother and her mother’s partner, after her mother discovered and insisted Reite notify her husband about the shopping debt she accrued.

“We hold that the superior courts had the statutory authority to impose determinate sentences for aggravated first degree murder for Carter and Reite, and with respect to Reite, that the superior court did not err, despite finding that her youth at the time did not substantially mitigate her crimes,” Washington Supreme Court ruled.

“We also hold that the superior court had the authority to resentence Carter on his other convictions and that the State may challenge the superior court’s decision to vacate Carter’s original sentence, but the superior court’s decision was not error,” added the court.

Pierce County prosecutors opposed, arguing that only legislators can reissue determinate sentences by passing a new law, according to their appeal. The Seattle Times reported that if successful, Carter and Reite could have been sent back to jail for the rest of their lives, despite the “unconstitutional” ruling in 2021.

The 2024 ruling, according to The Seattle Times, concerned dissenting judges and prosecutors, who are wary of the decision setting a precedent for 18- to 20-year-olds committing aggravating murder receiving “softer punishment” than juvenile minors under 18.

Washington Supreme Court Justice Barbara Madsen and Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office spokesperson Adam Faber were notable and outspoken about the potential dangers of their release.

However, Jeffrey Ellis, Portland-based attorney for Carter and Reite, shared a different perspective.

“Despite being told that they would never be released, they ended up rehabilitating and changing themselves,” Ellis stated, adding Thursday’s ruling could be “largely attributed” to both of his clients’ turning their lives around while incarcerated, emphasizing the decision came from their active efforts of rehabilitation.

According to the prison staff, Carter “created educational programs for incarcerated people to teach others and obtain college credits, organized summits with incarcerated youth” while in prison, noted by Pierce County Superior Court.

Carter recognized the “devastating impact of his actions,” the ruling stated, adding that since his release, Carter has found work at the state Office of Public Defense, and also works as a case manager for Young Bulls Fatherhood Academy and mentor for 18- to 24-year-olds involved with gangs.

Meanwhile, Reite has been reported to take “every possible class” and is a peer support person to other people while in prison, the ruling stated. One of her lifelong friends shared that Reite had become a “vastly different person” and was more thoughtful of others since her crimes, according to the court ruling.

“While both committed devastating crimes in their very young adult years, neither Carter nor Reite come before us as young people today, having both served decades in prison,” the Washington Supreme Court majority reaffirmed.

“Today, as adults in their 40s and 50s, both ask this court to affirm their determinate sentences, after the superior courts recognized at resentencing that they demonstrated an ability to transform through deep reflection, accountability, and a commitment to change during their decades in prison,” the court added.

“(Youth) is a moment and ‘condition of life when a person may be most susceptible to influence and psychological damage’ … as youth are malleable and have a heightened capacity to transform who they are and how they walk through life,” said Justice Montoya-Lewis, adding, “In this case, we are presented with two individuals who demonstrate that power of transformation.”

About The Author

Vy Tran is a 4th-year student at UCLA pursuing a B.A. in Political Science--Comparative Politics and a planned minor in Professional Writing. Her academic interests include political theory, creative writing, copyediting, entertainment law, and criminal psychology. She has a passion for the analytical essay form, delving deep into correlational and description research for various topics, such as constituency psychology, East-Asian foreign relations, and narrative theory within transformative literature. When not advocating for awareness against the American carceral state, Vy constantly navigates the Internet for the next wave of pop culture trends and resurgences. That, or she opens a blank Google doc to start writing a new romance fiction on a whim, with an açaí bowl by her side.

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