SAN JOSE -- Calling it a "very difficult" decision, a judge paved the way Monday for Santa Clara County's only female three-striker to be freed early after serving 17 years, four months and 14 days of a life sentence for stealing cash and merchandise from JC Penney.

Even though Lisa Carter's last offense, before she was sentenced to 25 years to life, was relatively minor, other aspects of her complete criminal record gave Superior Court Judge Deborah A. Ryan pause.

The judge noted that Carter, now 55, had once helped commit a "horrific" San Jose home invasion robbery in 1991, which terrified the victims, including a 14-year-old, and "may have left them traumatized to this day."

In 2005, while Carter was behind bars serving the 25-years-to-life sentence for the JC Penney theft, she was ordered to serve another two years by a San Joaquin judge for possessing a weapon she fashioned out of a razor, prosecutor Mark Duffy said.

She also got in a fight with another inmate only three months before the fall 2012 election, in which 69 percent of California voters approved the three strikes reform measure. Proposition 36 allows about 3,000 inmates who were sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent, relatively minor crimes to apply for early release. Carter's transgression, which prison officials said she committed in self-defense, therefore came at a time when most three-strikers who were eager to be freed early made sure they stayed on their best behavior.

"This is not a person who has done well in state prison," Duffy said. "She has made strides (in rehabilitating herself), but she is not there yet."

Gang beanie

Duffy tried to drive home that Carter's general conduct in prison showed she hasn't learned her lesson.

Nine years after the JC Penney theft, he noted, Carter refashioned the razor, which was found in her locker. And in 2011, she was involved in a fight with yet another inmate she attacked while the woman was lying on a bunk, and was docked 61 days of credits. Duffy also pointed out that Carter had been reclassified two years ago as an associate of the Hells Angels after she was caught wearing a beanie with the number "81" on it, which correlates to the letters "H" and "A."

Still, the judge wound up resentencing Carter to just nine years and four months -- effectively, time served -- after siding with the argument made by Deputy Public Defender Meghan Piano that Carter may have been doing what she needed to do by fighting to survive behind bars. A prisons expert who testified for Carter also minimized her conduct, saying he wouldn't have classified her as affiliated with the motorcycle club and that he believed her account that she fashioned the weapon in hopes it would be discovered so prison officials would transfer her to another facility where she could take classes.

The judge took the last in a series of breaks that increased the suspense over a three-hour period before she finally ruled.

"I am not convinced her conduct in prison is a complete reflection of (what) her behavior outside prison (will be)," the judge said. "It could be argued that she poses some risk to public safety, but I am not convinced that she poses an unreasonable risk," the standard necessary under the revised three strikes law.

Carter's supporters, including her daughter, one of her granddaughters and a slew of community activists, broke into applause when the judge announced the cliffhanger decision. Carter, a blonde woman with a short ponytail and thin face, turned toward the audience and grinned.

Paid her debt

However, the judge refused to free Carter immediately, saying prison officials technically have jurisdiction over crediting her with time served for the weapon possession she was convicted of in San Joaquin County, which they are all but certain to do shortly.

During the hearing, Piano argued that Carter had paid her debt to society and was at low risk statistically for re-offending because of her age and the fact that she has served more than 15 years behind bars. The prison expert who testified for Carter also noted there was no evidence that Carter "put in work" for the Hells Angels, meaning committed any offenses for them while in prison. The gang classification, Piano contended, was based on an old tattoo, a "smart aleck remark" Carter made and the beanie.

"We are asking the court to give her her life back," Piano said.

Carter also had letters of commendation from prison officials and an extensive re-entry plan, including six months in a substance abuse treatment program and the possibility of transitional housing in a sober living environment after that. Her pregnant daughter testified that she and her husband and their three children are eager to have her live with them in Elk Grove.

"The only thing missing in our lives is my mother," Joei Torres said tearfully.

Carter read a short letter in court to the judge.

"I apologize for who I used to be," she read, "and am asking for a chance to be who I am today."

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.