Every year in the United States, nearly a quarter of a million young people are tried, sentenced or imprisoned as adults. Karter Reed was one of them, convicted of murder and sentenced to life in adult prison at the age of 16. Boy With a Knife, by Jean Trounstine, is Reed’s story. Get your copy of this book by making a donation to Truthout today!
Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice, by Jean Trounstine, Ig Publishing, April 2016
By the time Karter Kane Reed became a teenager, his hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts, had been dubbed “the most violent place in New England” by the FBI. And violence was just one of the Whaling City’s problems. According to Jean Trounstine’s Boy With a Knife, between 1985, when Reed was 9, and 1993, when he killed a schoolmate, a slew of major employers had moved out of the area, among them, Goodyear Tires, Stride Rite Shoes and Morse Cutting Tools. This meant that unemployment and poverty were endemic, leaving most residents of the hardscrabble town — including the Reeds — struggling.
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By all accounts, Reed’s family life was also difficult. His dad was in jail, serving an 18 to 20 year sentence for attempting to sell cocaine to an undercover officer, and his mom was drinking heavily and providing little guidance to her son. Not surprisingly, Reed was floundering in school, rootless, angry and unsure of himself. He was also a target, a slightly built boy who had been jumped five times before entering high school.
Karter Reed’s response to these attacks was to carry a buck knife, and Trounstine reports that he kept the blade open at all times as he moved between classes at the New Bedford Vocational Technical High School. Still, he was rarely in serious trouble and attracted little notice.
That changed in April 1993, when Reed and two friends, Nigel Thomas and Gator Collett, drove to upscale Dartmouth, Massachusetts, to settle a score with a boy who had insulted Thomas. The threesome hoped that the tussle would give Thomas a chance to confront his tormentor. But the fight did not happen.
As compelling as Reed’s personal story is, it is the larger context of his trial and conviction that is most gripping.
The next day, however, Reed and his friends were still steaming and they decided to visit Dartmouth High, the school attended by Thomas’ adversary. As they approached Thomas’ nemesis, another Dartmouth boy, Duane Silva, tossed a few nasty words their way, threw several punches in their direction and subsequently knocked Thomas to the floor. Shawn Pina, Silva’s friend and the original antagonist, then entered the fray. By this point a crowd of students had gathered and while several teachers tried to break up the commotion, Reed stood on the sidelines, frozen. After a few moments as a spectator, he decided he needed to come to Thomas’ defense; when Reed saw Jason Robinson, a friend of Pina and Silva’s standing nearby and cheering his friends on, he moved toward him and as “clearly and swiftly as his 16-year-old hand could manage,” he stabbed Robinson in the gut.
The blow was fatal.
Within days, Reed was charged with first-degree premeditated murder for killing the unarmed Robinson, also 16. He also learned that the prosecutor did not want him tried as a youthful offender; the judicial system agreed, giving him a status that linked Reed to approximately 250,000 other young people who have been processed as adults for crimes ranging from drug sales, burglary, theft and property crimes, to murder and violent assault.
Trounstine’s account of Reed’s trial as an adult offender, the 20 years he spent in lockup and his post-prison redemption makes for intense — and important — reading.
But as compelling as his personal story is, it is the larger context of his trial and conviction that is most gripping. As Trounstine reports, Reed was in some ways unusual. Black youth, she writes, are more likely to have their cases heard in adult courts, and nine times more likely to be sentenced to serve their time in adult prisons than white defendants like Reed. What’s more, it took until four years ago — 2012 — for the US Supreme Court, in Miller v. Alabama, to rule that sentencing juveniles to life behind bars without the possibility of parole violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Sadly, this finding came decades too late for the thousands of minors with whom Reed was locked up.
Trounstine first met the convicted teen in 2008 when she brought a class from Middlesex Community College, where she teaches, to hear a jailhouse lecture he was scheduled to deliver. She and Reed had begun corresponding a year earlier and their letter exchange continued until his release in 2013. Through the letters, the pair discussed issues both personal and political and their communication became the skeleton of Boy With a Knife nine years later. Suffice it to say that the result is emotional, fact-driven and compelling, and not only chronicles Reed’s personal history and experience with the judicial system, but puts his incarceration into a wider political frame that deconstructs prevailing US attitudes about crime, punishment and the punitive and often arbitrary ways that power is exerted by judges, court officers, probation and parole agencies, and attorneys specializing in both criminal defense and criminal prosecution.
As the story unfolds, Reed makes no bones about his guilt or about the reckless behavior he engaged in on the day of the fight. Nonetheless, he emphasizes that he got caught up in the moment and did not intend to seriously injure, let alone kill, Jason Robinson.
Still, by the time Reed’s case went to trial many US politicians and media outlets were in a frenzy over the sharp increase in serious crime that had begun in the 1980s. Conservatives, including William J. Bennett, US secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, were railing about juvenile “superpredators,” young women and men, largely but not exclusively of color, who were described as violently impulsive and without remorse for even their most brutal behaviors. A move to try youngsters in adult courts — and then jail those found guilty alongside adult men and women — became standard fare, despite evidence, Trounstine writes, that teens convicted and sentenced as adults have higher recidivism rates than those sentenced as juveniles and are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those who are detained with people their age.
Reed, of course, knew none of this, but when he heard the roster of charges against him — trespassing; carrying a dangerous weapon; disturbing the peace while armed; conspiracy to commit a crime; and murder — he waived his Miranda rights. He did not understand that he could have insisted on waiting until his mother and an attorney were present.
Reed eventually secured representation from a public defender who did his best to bring in experts, including forensic psychologists, who testified that Reed was not a “violent delinquent,” and did not pose a danger to the community. Unfortunately for Reed, other experts, called by the prosecutor, said the opposite and their conclusions helped convict the teen and send him to prison for life, with the possibility of parole after 15 years.
Reed bounced between nine separate state prisons between his conviction and 2008 when he was paroled to a pre-release facility in Roslindale, Massachusetts. Things, he thought, were finally looking up: the “step-down” program came with housing, a job and a fair amount of freedom, and he planned to enroll in a local community college that fall.
It was not to be.
In January 2009, Reed was found in possession of “contraband:” a bottle of glucosamine chondroitin, an over-the-counter supplement that he had begun taking for elbow tendinitis, and an excessive amount of underwear. Yes, underwear. And as absurd as it sounds, even though the drug charge was dismissed fairly quickly, the fact that Reed had six more pairs of underwear than the system allowed sent him back to jail, this time in the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater.
Eventually, thanks to the tireless efforts of pro-bono attorney Richard Neumeier, who sued the Massachusetts Parole Board on Reed’s behalf, Reed was freed. But he had served four extra years for the “crime” of possessing a surfeit of tighty-whities.
Reed is now out of jail, on lifetime parole. Since his release he has obtained an associate’s degree and has found romance as well as work. Nevertheless, he told Trounstine that not a day goes by that he does not think about Jason Robinson or regret taking his life.
That said, Reed has also become a fervent decarceration activist. “I left prison only a few years from turning 40,” he writes in an epilogue to Boy With a Knife, “yet had never held a job, never paid taxes, never rented an apartment or been grocery shopping — the list of Nevers was pretty astounding. I had never seen or used the Internet or a cell phone, had never been in an adult relationship, and had never paid any bills — or had any bills to pay for that matter.” All of this, he writes, made his adjustment to life on the outside far more difficult than it needed to be. What’s more, while he does not make excuses for the crime he committed or minimize the misdeeds of others, he pleads for compassion over revenge. “No one should be judged solely on the worst thing they ever did,” he writes.
As a member of Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, he further advocates expanding opportunities for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, from “ban the box” laws to keep potential employers from considering past involvement in the criminal legal system when hiring, to restorative justice efforts that allow offenders and victims to listen to one another, process reactions and formulate solutions.
Improving the treatment of youth — and ending the prosecution and sentencing of minors as adults regardless of the crime they committed — is also high on Reed’s agenda. He concedes that it will be an uphill fight — especially since 14 states have still not set a minimum age for trying and incarcerating a minor child in an adult prison, and young people continue to be sent into solitary confinement despite a United Nations declaration that likens the practice to torture. Both Trounstine and Reed, however, are guardedly hopeful, pointing out that Massachusetts recently raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18, while Connecticut upped it to 21.
Trounstine and Reed further note that reams of evidence confirm that teenagers are typically impulsive, spontaneous and too immature to make well-reasoned decisions. As a result, they argue, locking kids in cages hurts more than it helps. Similarly, Boy with a Knife makes clear that the curtailment of education programs, whether for a high school equivalency diploma or college credit, is a penny-wise response that leaves kids without the skills they’ll need when they are eventually released.
In a letter published by The Boston Globe in 2011, Reed gets to the heart of the issue: “Some of us commit unjustifiable or unconscionable acts that bring undeserved heartache and suffering to our victims and their families,” he wrote. “But we are not beyond redemption. All of us have the capacity for change, to become productive contributors to our families and society and to make a difference in the world for the better.”