Sanctuary for Families’ Pro Bono Project has the honor of working with hundreds of extremely dedicated and expert pro bono attorneys per year. As part of our new Pro Bono Spotlight, we’ll be highlighting some of the great work done by Sanctuary pro bono attorneys!
*Please note that this blog contains descriptions of physical and sexual abuse that could be triggering*
Cozen O’Connor Team Help Secure Freedom for Incarcerated Domestic Violence Survivor
We are thrilled to share that another one of Sanctuary’s Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative clients, Ms. S, has been released due to the outstanding efforts of a Cozen O’Connor team headed by Members Matthew L. Elkin and Emily Shoor. Matt and Emily, along with their team, spent three years working on Ms. S’s DVSJA resentencing motion, which was approved in March 2023.
After a Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA) resentencing motion granted in March of 2023, Sanctuary’s client, Ms. S, was released after more than 10 years of incarceration for the stabbing death of her severely abusive former intimate partner. Without DVSJA resentencing, she would have served nearly 15 more years for her manslaughter conviction, in which she stabbed her abuser after he broke into her home in the middle of the night, threw her against a wall, and began to strangle her. We are deeply grateful to Matt Elkin and Emily Shoor from Cozen O’Connor for investing hundreds of hours into securing freedom for this survivor.
Like many incarcerated women, Ms. S has been subjected to unconscionable levels of abuse throughout her life, both at the hands of intimate partners and family members. Former partners have subjected her to severe sexual and physical violence, trafficking, forced drug usage, and repeated threats to her life with guns and violence.
The abuse perpetrated by Mr. B, the partner whose death led to Ms. S’s incarceration, began almost immediately after they started dating and escalated rapidly to severe physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. On multiple occasions he strangled Ms. S to the point of unconsciousness. He was jealous and controlling, and would frequently yell at Ms. S in public, break her things, and humiliate her. The abuse she suffered put Ms. S at a significantly high risk of femicide at the hands of her abuser. Under Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell’s widely used Danger Assessment, an escalation of violence, strangulation, sexual assault, violent jealously, and control are all indicators of an increased risk of lethality.
At great risk to her safety, Ms. S left Mr. B and began to implement an exit strategy, changing the locks of her doors, telling family and friends to keep Mr. B away, and planning to move to a new apartment.
However, the day before Ms. S was scheduled to move, she woke up to find Mr. B standing over her, having 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.
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.
In her ten-plus years of her incarceration, Ms. S has worked hard to heal from her trauma, taking nonviolent conflict resolution courses and aggression replacement training. She has thrived academically and professionally, holding several jobs at the prison while completing her Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degree, as well as a writing course and a Basic Legal Research and Law Library Management course. During this time, Ms. S also reached out to Sanctuary for legal assistance. After hearing her story Sanctuary recruited the law firm of Cozen O’Connor to help Ms. S, and Cozen O’Connor Members Matt L. Elkin and Emily Shoor agreed to represent Ms. S pro bono on her DVSJA application.
We reached out to Emily and Matt to hear more about their experience working with Ms. S.
What made you want to take on Ms. S’s case? What was your experience like working with her?
Matt: It was very clear from the beginning that Ms. S had lived a really tragic life and tragic circumstances led to her incarceration, but she still had such a positive attitude about her. We could tell that on a day-to-day basis she struggled to maintain [this attitude], day after day and week after week and year after year in Bedford Hills where things didn’t get any better, but she always kept up hope and was enthusiastic to work with us, which made her a tremendous client to work with.
What do you find compelling about DVSJA resentencing cases, as opposed to other cases with incarcerated survivors? What unique challenges and opportunities do they present?
Emily: I think it’s really wonderful that the [DVSJA] legislation opened the door for so many people to seek resentencing for circumstances that weren’t originally considered at their sentencing hearings. Ms. S was serving the maximum sentence for the crime of manslaughter, 25 years. And the DVSJA maximum sentence is only 5 years. So it gives people an opportunity to get their lives back, which is really compelling all on its own.
Which moment in your representation was the most impactful for you?
Matt: The obvious moment is when we were in court, after the judge ordered resentencing, listening to Ms. S express her gratitude to everyone who had a role in her resentencing for giving her this chance to ger her life back . On top of this, Ms. S was resentenced on a Thursday afternoon in Rochester and we were under the impression that she wasn’t going to be able to get out of prison before the weekend because she was incarcerated at Bedford Hills in Westchester. This was one of those things that we’d prepared ourselves and Ms. S for as an unfortunate reality. But that didn’t stop us from trying, and we asked the Judge if she could try to motivate [the Department of] Corrections to get things moving, and then everyone really sprang into action. The DA’s office supported our request; one of the guards who transported Ms. S from prison before the hearing approached the bench and explained the logistics of prisoner transport; the Judge’s law clerks were on the phone with their contacts at DOCCS before the hearing even ended; the team from Willow [Domestic Violence Center] was calling politicians and asking everyone they knew for support. Watching the entire community rally around Ms. S was particularly impactful. She was out of prison by lunchtime the next day, much to everyone’s surprise.
Emily: Also, the assistance that we got from the Monroe County DA, Sandra Doorley and from ADA Patrick Gallagher was amazing. DA Doorley was open minded and agreed to meet with us so we could discuss Ms. S’s case and advocate on her behalf directly. It also gave us the opportunity to “introduce” Ms. S to DA Doorley, by allowing us to convey Ms. S’s story beyond the words on paper. Once the DA’s office consented to the re-sentencing application, their cooperation and assistance proved invaluable. It’s such a unique experience in court to have both sides working to achieve the same result, and the Judge was clearly moved by the cooperation between both sides. It was really the most joyous a criminal courtroom could be.
Anything else you want to mention?
Emily: I’m really grateful to Sanctuary for partnering with firms to give attorneys the opportunity to do this kind of work in conjunction with their mentorship and expertise. Without the IGVSI team, Kayla, Ross, and Isabelle, we would not have been able to do this.
Matt: I also really value the pro bono program at Cozen O’Connor because members of our team were able to devote hundreds and hundreds of hours to this case. If not for a firm that’s truly committed to pro bono work, we would not have been able to devote the resources we needed to preparing Ms. S’s application, visiting her in prison multiple times, and ultimately going up to Rochester to get her resentenced. A lot of law firms talk the talk about pro bono work, but Cozen O’Connor has proven itself as a real leader.
We are so grateful to Emily, Matt, and Cozen O’Connor, and thrilled to welcome Ms. S home!
Join the Cozen O’Connor team in standing with our clients. Your gift supports Sanctuary’s life-saving work with survivors of gender violence.