A Victory for Incarcerated Domestic Violence Survivor Tracy McCarter

Earlier this month, the New York Supreme Court dismissed murder charges against domestic violence survivor Tracy McCarter — a major victory for Sanctuary’s Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative (IGVSI), its pro bono partners, and survivors of domestic violence throughout New York State.

In March of 2020, Tracy McCarter, an Upper West Side resident and a highly-respected registered nurse, was charged with Murder in the Second Degree and Criminal Possession of a Weapon in connection with the death of her husband. 

Tracy McCarter

It quickly became evident that Tracy was a victim of severe, prolonged domestic violence whose life was in danger at the time of the killing; according to reports, her husband had gone on an “intoxicated rampage through the building” just hours before the incident.

Upon learning about Tracy’s case, Dorchen Leidholdt, Director of Sanctuary’s Legal Center, immediately worked to find Tracy the experienced, trauma-informed, top-notch legal representation she deserved.

“It was paramount that Tracy have legal counsel who had a deep understanding of domestic violence, and could effectively convey to prosecutors the impact of trauma on Tracy’s actions. We also knew that Tracy would need the assistance of a forensic evaluator who could help explain the connection between the killing and the abuse.”

Dorchen Leidholdt
Director, Sanctuary for Families’ Legal Center

Ms. Leidholdt and Ross Kramer, Director of Sanctuary’s Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative (IGVSI), quickly identified a “dream” candidate for the representation — Sean Hecker of Kaplan Hecker & Fink, one of the best and most highly-regarded criminal defense attorneys in New York. Hecker quickly agreed to represent Tracy pro bono, and also partnered with two other top criminal defense attorneys, Jeffrey Brown of Dechert and Jacob Buchdal of Susman Godfrey. The legal team retained Dr. Dawn Hughes, a clinical psychologist who is a leading expert in domestic violence and trauma.

“The case completely changed when we were able to bring in Sean Hecker, Jeff Brown, Jacob Buchdahl, and Dawn Hughes. Suddenly, Tracy McCarter had the assistance of three of the best lawyers in the country, and one of the top forensic experts. Their experience and expertise, their compassion and patience, and their ability to advocate effectively for Tracy — along with the trauma-informed consideration of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg — made a life-changing difference in this case.”

Ross Kramer
Director, Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative

For approximately two years, IGVSI coordinated and assisted in Tracy’s representation. This included a presentation of Dr. Hughes’ findings to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which detailed, with significant corroboration, the years of potentially lethal violence McCarter’s husband directed against her, including brutal beatings and repeated incidents of strangulation. In September of 2020, the team achieved its first success by securing Tracy’s release on bail after repeated denials; the defense team’s arguments were augmented by positive press coverage of the case in the Wall Street Journal. In May of 2022, Sanctuary and 58 other leading domestic violence service-providers signed a letter to Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg urging him to dismiss the criminal charges against Tracy. Later that summer, Ms. Leidholdt met individually with D.A. Bragg, and she also joined Mr. Hecker, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Buchdahl in a meeting with D.A. Bragg’s legal team, urging dismissal. Months of hard-fought advocacy finally paid dividends in November of this year, when all charges against Tracy were dismissed.

Thanks to the tireless advocacy of Sanctuary, IGVSI, and Tracy’s legal team, she received the representation and support she needed and deserved. Given that one-third of women incarcerated in New York for homicide were being abused by the person they killed, the outcome of Tracy’s case stands as an important precedent for the future of successful trauma-informed representation of criminalized survivors.