From a small classroom at the University of Washington School of Law, a group of students in the Tools for Social Change: Race and Justice Clinic successfully advocated for the commutation of Anthony Covert’s 36-year sentence. It was December 7, 2023, and the students, along with Teaching Professor Kimberly Ambrose, director of the clinic, were meeting over Zoom with the Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board before their final exams.

As a result, the group obtained the Board’s unanimous recommendation to Governor Jay Inslee to commute Covert’s sentence. Inslee approved Covert’s clemency in April.

“Sixteen students over the years have worked on this client’s case at every court level since 2017,” said Ambrose, highlighting the work of UW Law students.

After six years, the final group of Madison Brown, J.D. ‘24, rising 3L Kely Cortes, Prentice Mackey-Moseley, J.D. ‘24, and Xander Thompson, J.D. ‘24, brought a long-time clinic client across the finish line.

That’s why, on June 10, Ambrose and the clinic team were at Walla Walla State Penitentiary when Covert stepped out a free man.

Rough Beginnings

Anthony Covert’s life journey, fraught with early hardships and systemic neglect, resonated deeply with Ambrose and UW Law students in the Race and Justice Clinic. Raised as a ward of the state from his toddler years and shuttled between foster homes, Covert found solace in a gang as a teenager, accumulating a juvenile record that exacerbated his adult sentencing. Despite being adopted by a loving family, racial disparities and a lack of support systems propelled him into criminal acts, culminating in a lengthy prison term at the age of 18.

Sentenced to 36 years, Covert served 16 years — six years longer than a plea deal of 10 years he had not been informed of by his public defender.

Mobilizing Advocacy

With a proactive stance on social justice issues, the clinic mobilized under Ambrose’s guidance and waged a tireless campaign for Covert’s freedom. The campaign by the students involved many steps and required detail-oriented thinking to organize a 90-minute hearing that would address the multiple criteria for a clemency recommendation, including the communication of true remorse from their client.

“Getting clemency is a long process and it’s hard work,” said Cortes. “We had to become familiar with the case and build rapport with Anthony. In addition to preparing opening statements and becoming familiar with members of the Board, we submitted a supplemental petition and gathered letters of support. Our school’s registered student organizations sent the Governor a community letter. We timed the witness statements for the clemency hearing and very strategically planned the order that the witnesses would speak.”

Retroactivity in Criminal Justice Reform

In March 2023, the Washington State Legislature passed House Bill (HB) 1324, a reform initiative intended to end the practice of using juvenile records to inflate adult sentences. It initially held promise as a beacon of hope for Covert and others like him, but despite early optimism following its passage in the House of Representatives with retroactive provisions intact, the Senate later amended the bill to exclude those already sentenced— a move that effectively denied Covert and numerous inmates the possibility of resentencing.

For the students of the Race and Justice Clinic, it was a moment of reckoning—a stark reminder of the complexities and challenges inherent in advocating for systemic reform. “In 2024, the clinic advocated for HB 2065, the ‘juvenile points retroactivity’ bill, which passed out of the house and then later died,” said Ambrose. “It would have helped Anthony but we didn’t end up needing it.”

In addition to the clinic’s work of representing youth directly, the students also provided community education through drafting op-eds as part of their legislative work with local tribes. Their efforts reflect a broader national conversation on the inequities of the justice system, particularly concerning racial disparities and punitive sentencing practices.

Covert’s story was a poignant reminder of the human toll exacted by rigid sentencing laws and the enduring quest for justice in America’s courts.

“We worked hard to convince the Board to recommend Anthony’s release,” said Cortes. “It was his only option for freedom.”

The Future for Covert and Retroactivity

As a testament to the enduring spirit of reform and resilience within Washington state’s legal and advocacy communities, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) have now taken the lead on the retroactivity bill. “I hope that my students can continue to help, since we got really close in the last legislative session,” said Ambrose.

On June 10, a limousine from the Successful Transition and Re-entry (STAR) Project appropriately met Covert outside the Walla Walla State Penitentiary, welcoming him to the world outside prison walls.

According to Cortes, Covert is a star in his own right. In addition to being a leader in the penitentiary’s Black Prisoner’s Caucus (Covert is Black Latino) and a lead organizer for its Look2Justice group, he did legislative work for the aforementioned bills. Covert’s paintings are on display and for sale in art galleries. He even wrote a published comment, “Victims of the White Gaze,” in the Seattle Journal for Social Justice.

“Most folks will agree that Anthony is an extraordinary person,” Cortes said, a sentiment that Thompson shared with the Board during the clemency hearing. “While incarcerated, he empowered other people, even us as law students during our check-in calls. He is caring and thoughtful. Even the guards at the prison love Anthony.”

While incarcerated, Covert received an associate degree from Whitman College. He also secured a job offer from the Provost and Dean of the Faculty, Alzada Tipton, with whom he participated in a book club. Tipton testified at the clemency hearing about multiple observations where she had witnessed Covert’s intent to “restore it forward.”

“It wasn’t until I spoke to him about his crime that I realized I was meeting a new Anthony who had grown away from an old Anthony. All his goals are about helping others. It’s very clear that helping others is a priority for Anthony going forward,” Tipton said.

In addition to Covert’s own declarations and responses to the Board on issues such as his faith, love, remorse and restitution, witnesses testified to the “new Anthony’s” intelligence, big heart, open-mindedness and ability to connect with others. Members of the Board encouraged Covert to align his decisions and actions with the things he said he believed in, saying of his release, “We always think about the victims. This was a difficult case, and it will be hard for them.”

As the Board handed Covert their unanimous support, though, they affirmed what Ambrose and clinic students have believed since 2017. “Anthony, you will do much better outside than in. We think you will be an excellent example for other prisoners. You’ll help so many people. You have a big heart and are so full of love. And we expect to see you back here in a few years testifying on behalf of prisoners.”

As for the clinic team, the Board commended the students for their advocacy, saying they were one of the “most impressive” teams that presented a clemency case to them. “We will try to use you as an example,” they said, saying that the students’ future lawyering looks bright.

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