A state lawmaker from Bremerton says she has received death threats after conservative media outlets seized on a bill over the holidays to remove fatal drive-by shootings from a list of “aggravators” that require a life sentence for people convicted of first-degree murder. Police are investigating.
State Rep. Tarra Simmons, a Democrat, filed the bill before Christmas and before leaving for vacation with her family on a cruise in Mexico.
Simmons said this set off a cascade of hostile, harassing and threatening messages to her personal social media accounts. She has not yet checked her official voicemail and email accounts, but she described herself as “inundated.” Particularly disturbing to her were messages left on photos of her children and ones that referenced her family.
Some called her an obscenity, others a “fat cow” and others said she must have a Black boyfriend she was trying to save. Some referenced a slogan from a white supremacist group about hangings, she said. A recurring theme was that she and her family ought to be killed in a drive-by shooting.
“See you when you get back,” read one message Simmons shared with the Kitsap Sun. Another said: “You better be scared.”
A spokesman for the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office, Lt. Ken Dickinson, confirmed on Thursday that detectives are investigating and have requested search warrants. Dickinson said he was limited in what he could release as the case is under investigation.
Simmons said she has alarms on her house and requested extra patrols from law enforcement, alerted her neighbors and was seeking a personal safety plan from a consultant.
Though she filed the bill, she did not expect the measure to get a committee hearing, let alone a floor vote.
Instead, she had been planning to prioritize her efforts around poverty and health care, mergers and acquisitions in hospital chains, ferries and clarifications to a recent police reform law that has chafed law enforcement around the state.
She also did not expect the blowback.
“I didn’t think it would rise to this level of actual death threats from across the nation,” she said. “I really did not see that.”
However, she said she supports removing the aggravator.
“My constituents knew who I was when they elected me,” Simmons said. “I was going to ask hard questions and not spend my time renaming roads. I’m the first formerly incarcerated person in the Legislature and I feel it’s my responsibility to ask hard questions.”
Simmons became prominent even before she was elected to the Legislature. A nurse who fell into meth addiction and crime, Simmons was convicted in Kitsap County Superior Court and sent to prison.
After her release, she graduated from Seattle University law school and began working on criminal justice reform. She further became notable when the state Supreme Court ordered the Washington State Bar Association to allow her to sit for the licensing exam, which she passed.
She said she understands people oppose the measure.
“That’s fine,” she said. “That’s what we are supposed to do, to have civil discourse and dissent. It’s OK to not agree. When it becomes this level of really personal attacks, and death threats, that’s not OK.”
Bill would remove an ‘aggravator’ of first-degree murder
Though critics characterized the bill as leniency for drive-by murderers, the measure would not lessen the punishment for murder or drive-by shootings.
What it would do is remove drive-by shootings from a list of possible “aggravators” for first-degree murder, often described as “premeditated murder,” which can be tacked on to the charge by prosecutors.
Aggravating factors are facts from the crime that make first-degree murder even worse. Now that the state does not have a death penalty, the only penalty a judge can hand down for aggravated first-degree murder is life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Without the aggravator, a person convicted of the crime would be sentenced within guidelines. For first-degree murder, the sentences usually start at 25 years and go up.
Some of the other aggravators on the list account for when first-degree murder is committed to prevent government or law enforcement officials from doing their job, such as murdering the judge deciding a person’s case.
Importantly, the measure is retroactive and would allow the resentencing for the reportedly single person sitting in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder with the drive-by shooting aggravator. However, that inmate is already eligible for resentencing.
Simmons said victims and survivors need assistance to heal but also said people convicted of many crimes need an opportunity to change, better themselves and rejoin society.
“If we don’t have any hope for that, where is the justice?” she asked.
She said that the aggravators can be political and don’t necessarily reflect the severity of a crime. Another aggravator on the list requires life without parole if a person commits first-degree murder as part of a gang initiation.
Kitsap County Prosecutor Chad Enright, who has worked with Simmons on re-entry issues, said he supported the measure though he did not believe it would be approved this session.
He said the drive-by aggravator was rarely used — and possibly had never been used in Kitsap County. Further, he said, prosecutors have other options for ratcheting up a sentence to life in prison for a fatal drive-by shooting, including other “aggravators” and sentencing enhancements.
“I’m not sure it’s ever been filed in this county,” Enright said of the drive-by aggravator. “I’ve talked to prosecutors around the state, it’s really not been used virtually by anyone in decades.”
Former lawmaker asked for bill
Simmons filed the measure in advance of the legislative session, which starts Monday, at the request of retired King County Superior Court Judge Mike Heavey. While a state senator in 1995, Heavey voted for the law.
Heavey has since disavowed his vote for the package of laws, in which drive-by was added as an aggravator to first-degree murder, and admits that he doesn’t recall any substantive discussion about the proposal at the time.
Now, looking back, he believes the law was meant to target young Black men for life sentences. Anti-crime efforts of that era have been blamed for a subsequent boom in the prison population that disproportionately incarcerates Black men and hobbled Black communities.
“I regret not being as observant as I should have been,” said Heavey, who was born in Bremerton and lived in Westpark but moved to Seattle as a child, where he has lived since. “Clearly, I just didn’t get it.”
Simmons and Heavey said they are aware of one person serving a life sentence because of the aggravator, Kimanti Carter, a gang member starting at age 11.
Heavey said it was Carter’s story, and his rehabilitation in prison, that motivated him to push for the change in the law.
Heavey first became aware of Carter’s conviction after seeing a film by Evergreen State College Professor Gilda Sheppard, “Since I Been Down,” which focuses on Carter’s rehabilitation and Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood in the 1990s, where the murder took place.
Carter, who is Black, was convicted in Pierce County Superior Court of aggravated first-degree murder for killing Corey Pittman, 19, on May 24, 1997.
Pittman, who was also Black, was not a gang member. Rather, he was a former homecoming king at Lincoln High School and a sophomore at Alabama State University who was home visiting for the summer.
Carter, 18 at the time, was a member of a Blood gang, the Pyru Bounty Hunters, and mistook the car Pittman was in as filled with rival Crip gang members.
The car Carter was in followed the car Pittman was riding in down South 15th Street in Tacoma, and from the window Carter fired at least 15 rounds. Police found bullet holes in a nearby apartment building, according to court documents. Two other people in the car with Pittman were wounded.
Simmons’ bill was filed Dec. 23.
On Dec. 14, a state appeals court found Carter is eligible for resentencing and noted in its opinion that Pierce County prosecutors conceded that fact. Since being sent to prison, Carter has become a teacher and leader to other inmates.
Bill criticized as ‘leniency’
Talk show hosts took exception to not only the proposal itself, characterizing it as an effort to “go easy” on murderers, but were piqued by the language of the measure, which says it would promote “racial equity in the criminal legal system.”
“It’s the latest light-on-crime scheme pushed under the guise of being anti-racist,” wrote Jason Rantz, a local talk radio host.
On Monday, the Seattle Times published an opinion piece by journalist Brandi Kruse, headlined “No leniency for drive-by shooters who kill.”
Kruse focused on the lasting grief and anguish of Pittman’s family as a reason to oppose allowing Carter to be resentenced.
Simmons said she weighed including the racial justice language and had considered instead using language such as “in the interest of fairness and justice,” but Heavey urged her to include the racial justice language.
Heavey said it was important to make clear the aggravator’s racist intent.
“It was aimed at Black youth in 1995, and it has only impacted one Black youth, and that, to me, is racial inequity,” Heavey said. “If there was this crime in the Okanogan with kids who worked on a farm or ranches, and they used a shotgun and shot from a car, I don’t think they could be charged with drive-by shooting.”
While she was taken aback by the threats, Simmons attributed it, in part, to the stress, isolation and fear of the pandemic.
“We just live in a very politically-charged environment right now, which is really sad and breaks my heart,” she said. “Also, it’s just kind of scary.”