At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families is thrilled to honor Cozen O’Connor Members Matthew L. Elkin and Emily Shoor, associate Maria Ermakova, and former Cozen O’Connor associate Lisa Coutu. Matt, Emily, Maria, and Lisa spent three years working to secure their client’s release from prison after more than 10 years of incarceration.
We previously wrote a June 2023 Pro Bono Spotlight highlighting the outstanding work of Cozen O’Connor Members Matthew L. Elkin and Emily Shoor, who, together with associate Maria Ermakova and former Cozen associate Lisa Coutu, helped to secure the release of their client, Ms. S, through a Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA)¹ resentencing motion. Without the DVSJA resentencing, Ms. S would have served nearly 15 more years for her manslaughter conviction, in which she stabbed her former partner and abuser after he broke into her home in the middle of the night and attacked her. Incredibly, the dangerous and traumatic history of domestic violence was never brought up for consideration during Ms. S’s trial. We are deeply grateful to Emily, Matt, Maria, and Lisa for investing hundreds of hours into securing freedom for this deeply deserving survivor.
Ms. S, like so many incarcerated women, suffered horrific abuse throughout her life from several intimate partners. The abuse by her now-deceased former partner, Mr. B, included severe sexual, psychological, and physical abuse, including many incidents of strangulation to the point of unconsciousness. The kind of abuse she suffered put Ms. S at significantly high risk of femicide at the hands of her abuser. Ultimately, Ms. S left Mr. B and began to implement an exit strategy. However, the day before Ms. S was scheduled to move, she woke up to realize that Mr. B had broken into her apartment. Mr. B attacked Ms. S, throwing her against a wall and strangling her. To protect herself, Ms. S grabbed a nearby sharp object and stabbed Mr. B once. The blow was not intended to be fatal – in fact, Ms. S immediately began conducting CPR on Mr. B, and she did not know that Mr. B had died until the police revealed it to her in questioning.
As mentioned, shockingly, this history of domestic violence and the circumstances surrounding Mr. B’s death were never raised at trial. Ms. S was acquitted of second degree murder but convicted of manslaughter in the first degree and given the maximum sentence of 25 years.
While incarcerated, Ms. S reached out to Sanctuary for legal assistance. Sanctuary recruited the law firm of Cozen O’Connor to help Ms. S with her case, and Elkin, Shoor, Ermakova, and Coutu eagerly agreed to submit a DVSJA resentencing application on Ms. S’s behalf. Some of this work included compiling letters from her family members, tracking down old documents related to the case, and drafting a comprehensive brief and client affidavit that compellingly illustrated the direct connection between the history of domestic violence and the crime of conviction. To create these materials, the Cozen team met with Ms. S over the course of several years, building a strong relationship based on trust and empathy as they delved back into Ms. S’s extensive trauma history.
Ultimately, after a meeting with the District Attorney’s office to present Ms. S’s story and months of strategic advocacy, the DA consented to the re-sentencing. With that consent, the Judge ordered Ms. S’s release at the first court appearance and she was out of prison and reunited with her family the following afternoon.
Director of the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative Ross Kramer said,
“The Cozen team went ‘above and beyond’ by advocating for Ms. S with skill, tenacity, and persistence over the course of this very long and difficult case. In their three years representing Ms. S, the team gave her hope. For the first time, she believed that attorneys were listening to her, that they believed her, and that they would fight for her. Ms. S was incarcerated for 11 difficult years. But because of the Cozen team’s efforts, more than half her sentence was wiped out. The team literally gave Ms. S back more than a decade of her life – a decade that she can now spend reconnecting with her friends, family and community.”
Cozen Director of Pro Bono Engagement Melinda Levine deLisle concluded,
“I am so proud of the dedication and hard work of the Cozen O’Connor team over the last few years to free Ms. S, and so grateful to Sanctuary for Families for its leadership in this important cause and for giving us the opportunity to contribute.”
We are so grateful to Emily, Matt, Maria, and Lisa for their amazing work and are so thrilled that Ms. S is home at last.
To read more about this incredible case, including our interview with Emily and Matt, please see here.
¹ Criminal Procedure Law § 440.47(1), known as the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA), allows the sentencing court to resentence a domestic violence survivor who suffered sexual, psychological or physical abuse that contributed to their conviction if certain criteria are met.
Join us at our Above & Beyond Awards Ceremony on October 25, 2023, as we honor Cozen O’Connor’s outstanding pro bono work.
Romy Felsen-Parsons is the Pro Bono Project Assistant at Sanctuary for Families.