Weil Team Wins Major Victory for Incarcerated Survivor of Domestic Violence

At this year’s Above and Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring the pro bono work of Richard Rothman, Senior Counsel at Weil, Gotshal and Manges and Co-Chair of the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative, Nigar Shaikh, formerly an Associate at Weil and currently Counsel at Everytown for Gun Safety, and Dori Y. Cohen, Associate at Weil, for their representation of “Amy,” an incarcerated survivor of severe domestic violence.

Vanessa Gutierrez is the 2018-2019 Tow Policy Advocacy Fellow at the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services from John Jay College of Criminal Justice – CUNY.

At this year’s Above and Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring the pro bono work of Richard Rothman, Senior Counsel at Weil, Gotshal and Manges and Co-Chair of the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative, Nigar Shaikh, formerly an Associate at Weil and currently Counsel at Everytown for Gun Safety, and Dori Y. Cohen, Associate at Weil, for their representation of “Amy,” an incarcerated survivor of severe domestic violence.

Rich Rothman has long been a pro bono advocate for survivors of gender-based violence, primarily survivors of intimate partner violence and sex trafficking.  In 2017 Rich, in conjunction with Sanctuary Legal Director Dorchen Leidholdt, founded the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative (the “Initiative”)—a collaboration of professionals and survivors focused on three main goals:

  1. Representation on parole, clemency, and re-sentencing matters
  2. Systems-change advocacy to improve the rate of release for incarcerated survivors
  3. Education and training on issues related to the intersection of gender-based violence, trauma, and incarceration

Nigar Shaikh was an early member of the Initiative and was instrumental in helping the Initiative implement its three-fold strategy to assist survivors.

The Initiative strives to help survivors who have been in prison for many years.  As Rich points out,

“Many of these older convictions took place in an era where domestic violence and trauma weren’t really understood by many, but especially the criminal justice system.  The women we help are victims whose crimes are directly related to the abuse they suffered, which landed them in prison. These women pose no risk to society, and deserve to live their lives outside of prison.”

Amy was one of the Initiative’s first referrals. Like the vast majority of women in prison, Amy was a victim of horrific violence prior to her incarceration.  She grew up witnessing domestic violence perpetrated by her father against her mother and was so distraught by what she saw that she attempted suicide at the age of twelve. A year later she moved to a new school and started dating an older boy who preyed on her vulnerability. This marked the beginning of an eleven-year relationship during which Amy was subjected to increasingly violent and dangerous abuse, as well as psychological torture.  Her abuser threatened to kill her, her family, and her friends if she tried to leave him.  It was right after he threatened to kill Amy’s sister, who was visiting her, that Amy made the terrifying decision to flee.

Amy and her sister were hiding at their step-mother’s house for approximately six weeks before they began to fear that her abuser had found her.  During an argument with her step-mother and sister about how to stay safe now that she had been discovered, Amy’s relentless stress, terror, and untreated PTSD took over and, without conscious knowledge of what she was doing, Amy killed her step-mother, with whom she’d had a close, loving relationship. She was convicted in 1991 for murder in the second degree and sentenced to 25 years to life.

Amy was eligible for parole in 2015, but despite an impeccable record inside prison, a strong release plan, and deep remorse for the crime she committed, she was denied parole.  Instead of considering the many factors that warranted her release, the parole board focused solely on the severity of the crime, completely disregarding the governing statute, regulations, and case law.

Amy was referred to the Initiative for help preparing for her next parole interview in 2018. After his first meeting with Amy at Taconic Correctional Facility, Rich knew that the Initiative had to try to help her.  Soon after, he agreed to represent Amy and he recruited Nigar and Dori to complete Amy’s pro bono team.

Rich, Nigar, and Dori worked on updating and supplementing her parole packet. Understanding how important it would be to explain Amy’s extreme trauma and the effect it had on the commission of the crime, they hired a trauma expert to meet with Amy and deliver an expert report to the parole board. The team compassionately worked with Amy to prepare her for the parole board interview—an experience that is often incredibly re-traumatizing for many survivors.  With the expert support and guidance of Rich, Nigar, and Dori, Amy was finally, after more than 25 years in prison, granted parole in 2018.

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on November 12, 2019, at the RUMI Event Space, 229 W 28th St, New York, NY as we honor Richard, Nigar, and Dori’s outstanding pro bono work.  You can buy tickets here

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.

Sanctuary’s Initiative works to reform Parole Hearing Process

On the morning of Jan. 21, 1993, Niki Rossakis shot and killed her severely abusive

On the morning of Jan. 21, 1993, Niki Rossakis shot and killed her severely abusive husband.  In 2017, after serving over twenty-five years and being denied parole three times despite an impeccable prison record, Niki was finally granted parole—and in the process helped to inspire a movement to help other incarcerated women and to reform the parole process itself.

In early 2017 Niki Rossakis, a Queens native who fatally shot her severely abusive husband in 1993, was scheduled for a new parole hearing after a state appellate court ruled, on November 10, 2016, that the parole board’s decision denying her parole for a third time was “so irrational as to border on impropriety and [was] therefore arbitrarily and capriciously rendered.”  Others may not have taken a second glance at this appellate victory, but to Sanctuary Legal Center Director, Dorchen Leidholdt, and Weil Gotshal Senior Counsel, Richard Rothman, the opinion and the new parole hearing for Niki carried the possibility of becoming monumental.

Niki Rossakis, 1996.

Niki’s husband, Gary Rossakis, had been severely physically and sexually abusive to her throughout their marriage. In 1993, despite being advised to refrain from sex while she was healing from a medical procedure, Niki’s husband sexually assaulted her and threatened to rape her. Convinced that he was going to kill her, Niki shot and killed her husband with one of the many guns he possessed – guns that he had used to threaten her in the past. Niki was convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced to 24 years to life. On appeal the sentence was reduced to 15 years to life.

During her time in prison, Niki proved that she was worthy of parole. She completed two associate degrees and multiple rehabilitative programs, obtained intensive trauma-informed therapy, received offers of a job and housing upon release, and achieved the best possible score on her COMPAS Evaluation – which tests one’s inclination to resort to violence, substance abuse, and/or criminal behavior. Even after accomplishing so much, however, Niki was denied parole on three separate occasions in 2009, 2011, and 2013. Each time the parole board asserted that Niki failed to articulate remorse because of her continued assertions that she was a victim of domestic violence. Niki’s hopes of parole seemed to diminish with every passing year.


Help finally arrived in 2016 when Dorchen Leidholdt, Legal Director at Sanctuary for Families, and Richard Rothman, Senior Counsel at Weil Gotshal and Manges LLP, became interested in the case and offered to represent Niki at her next parole hearing. When asked how he became involved, Richard Rothman said it was simply a matter of wanting to help:

“I first heard about Niki Rossakis from Dorchen Leidholdt, who I believe had learned about Niki from the co-chair of Sanctuary’s PBC.  Dorchen called to ask her if she needed representation after having been denied parole three times, and then travelled to the Taconic prison in Bedford, New York, to meet with Niki on a Saturday. Dorchen asked me if I could work on the case with her, and I jumped at the opportunity.”

Earlier that year, an Article 78 petition seeking a new parole hearing had been filed on Niki’s behalf, which Judge Alice Schlesinger approved. In January 2017, with the pro bono representation of Sanctuary and Weil Gotshal, the Parole Board finally granted parole to Niki after more than twenty years in prison. Inspired by their success, Leidholdt and Rothman founded the Initiative for Incarcerated Survivors of Gender Violence with the hopes of improving the parole system for survivors of gender violence.

Dorchen Leidholdt (left), Niki Rossakis (center) and Richrd Rothman (right) at the 2017 Abely Awards.

The Initiative for Incarcerated Survivors of Gender Violence (“the Initiative”) is a collaboration among legal and social services organizations, law firms, advocacy groups, former judges, formerly incarcerated survivors, and other individuals committed to assisting survivors of gender violence currently serving prison time in New York State.

“As a leading advocate and service provider for victims of gender-based violence, Sanctuary is proud to be a founding member and co-chair of the Initiative, and excited to be involved in this critical work.”

Since its founding in 2017, the Initiative has grown into a multi-faceted program, while maintaining its devotion to incarcerated survivors. The Initiative works to achieve three main goals:

(i) To provide representation in matters relating to parole; (ii) Engage in advocacy to improve the justice system’s approach to parole release decisions for incarcerated survivors; and (iii) To provide education and training on issues of gender-based violence for those involved in parole and clemency decision-making. These three main pillars are designed to help survivors like Niki Rossakis get the legal counsel and parole preparation that is needed before their hearings.


Although it may seem as though Niki’s case is highly individualized, the reality of the matter is that most incarcerated women have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse during childhood or adulthood.[1] As victims of gender violence, but also as perpetrators of violent crimes, they face a complicated and often misunderstood battle in seeking parole. More times than not, the parole board does not grant parole due to a variety of reasons, which include failure to admit remorse and responsibility, need for rehabilitation, and chances of recidivism. As was illustrated in Niki’s case, the parole board tends to misconstrue identification as a victim as the opposite of remorse. This becomes especially problematic once factors such as the prevalence of PTSD among survivors are introduced. Such realities make gender violence survivors a unique subset of the prison population for whom special assistance, like the Initiative, is essential.

Incarcerated women at the Taconic Facility.

Currently, the Initiative relies on pro bono legal services, which are provided by Davis Polk, Latham & Watkins, Paul Weiss, and Weil Gotshal. Representatives from each of the firms partner with members of the Initiative, who train and mentor the attorneys. Because there is no right to counsel for parole applicants, many individuals eligible for parole prepare for their interview on their own, which, unfortunately, becomes a scary, overwhelming, and sadly unsuccessful endeavor. In order to mitigate this issue, and assist with the training of volunteers and attorneys of the Initiative, Sanctuary has created a Parole Training Manual and a complementary Resource Library, both of which aim to increase awareness and knowledge for the incarcerated subjects of gender violence.


In addition to creating change through legal representation, Sanctuary is also working on behalf of incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence by meeting with those involved in the parole and clemency decision-making process. This includes recent meetings with Alphonso David, the Governor’s Counsel, and Tina Stanford, Chairwoman of the Board of Parole, as well as an upcoming training for all of the Parole Board Commissioners. These meetings have resulted in positive outcomes, including expressions of interest and excitement about working with us. We look forward to continuing to partner together with individuals in the Governor’s office and within the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision on matters of parole and clemency.


Exterior of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

Lastly, Initiative volunteers have reached out to Taconic Correctional Facility to assist in identifying potential clients as well as allowing us to provide parole preparation and gender-based violence training. According to Sanctuary staff and member of the Initiative, meetings with the superintendent at Taconic have gone well. According to Nicole Fidler, Director of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Program,

“We are very fortunate to have the support of Taconic Correctional Facility’s new Superintendent, Tanya Mitchell-Voyd.  She has met with us twice and has encouraged us to engage with both the staff at Taconic and with the women incarcerated at Taconic.  Building partnerships with Correctional Facilities in New York is critical to our ability to effectively serve incarcerated survivors.”

Leidholdt and Sanctuary Clinical Director and Initiative member Laura Fernandez recently conducted a training on gender-based violence for staff at Taconic Correctional Facility.  The Initiative hopes to continue partnering with Taconic to conduct trainings and outreach.

Although there is still a long road ahead, we are confident that our work will soon produce tangible change in not only the parole hearing process, but the lives of those who are have been affected by this complicated and dated process.

[1] In one study of women incarcerated in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, it was found that 82% had been severely physically or sexually abused as children and 93% of women convicted of killing sexual intimates – current or former husbands, boyfriends or girlfriends – had been physically or sexually abused by an intimate.