Published September 7, 2020
School of Law students and faculty will address “a historic blind spot in the judicial system” with the support of a major grant awarded to the school’s Advocacy Institute.
The $53,125 grant from the American College of Trial Lawyers, which represents a major investment from that invitation-only advocates’ group, will be used to support a revitalized Innocence and Justice Project, with an initial mandate to represent incarcerated clients who have suffered serious abuse and have received harsh prison sentences for actions related to that abuse.
“This is a significant milestone,” says trial attorney Terrence M. Connors ’71, who chairs the Advocacy Institute’s National Advisory Board, which includes four ACTL members. “Their approval of our grant application recognizes that our Innocence and Justice Project, an arm of our Advocacy Institute, is incredibly worthwhile and is consistent with the mission of their foundation.”
To take on this project, the Advocacy Institute will collaborate with a new Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic, where students can work under the direction of Alexandra Harrington, who joined the law school this semester as an associate professor, to identify, interview and represent clients – predominantly women – who are in prison after suffering serious abuse. The work is made possible by the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, enacted last year in New York.
The legislation, which draws on new understandings of the psychological underpinnings of such violence, allows state Supreme Court judges to significantly reduce some survivors’ prison sentences.
“Sentencing is supposed to be holistic,” Harrington says. “In practice, without this law that gives specific recognition to domestic violence survivors — or laws that give specific recognition to people who were kids at the time of the crime — mitigating factors weren’t always getting fair shrift at sentencing.”
The ACTL Foundation recognizes programs whose principal purpose is to maintain and improve the administration of justice. “New York State’s new Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act addresses a historic blind spot in the judicial system: the failure to recognize that some survivors were convicted precisely because their abuse stripped them of the ability to participate effectively in their own defense,” says foundation President Joan A. Lukey. “Kudos to the School of Law for its willingness to help identify and assist the incarcerated survivors who are now eligible for resentencing. The ACTL Foundation is pleased and privileged to provide seed money for this important initiative.”
Anthony O’Rourke, Joseph W. Belluck and Laura L. Aswad Professor of Civil Justice who directs the Advocacy Institute, will serve as co-counsel with Harrington. He says the need is great for this kind of work — and close at hand. “The state’s largest prison for women is virtually at our back door, in Albion,” he says, “and there’s little infrastructure at this point for representing clients from Buffalo.”
He says Legal Aid attorneys already have developed a list of their clients who could potentially seek relief. The Advocacy Institute, O’Rourke says, looks forward to partnering with Legal Aid to take on some of these cases.
In addition to direct representation of clients, O’Rourke says students in the project will conduct research to understand the scope of the legal need, and develop creative litigation strategies as the justice system begins to implement the new law.
“The real goal,” he says, “is to ensure that the statute is interpreted in a way that is faithful to the Legislature’s goal of addressing the years of injustice faced by survivors of domestic violence.”
O’Rourke says the grant will provide the resources necessary for “effective and meaningful litigation work,” including paying investigators and expert witnesses, training and travel for the purpose of litigation.
“We are extremely grateful to the ACTL Foundation for funding this important work,” he says.
Harrington, who worked with several legal clinics as a student and later a fellow at Yale Law School, says she’s excited about engaging her Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic students in work under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act.
“There’s a lot of context and history and life that comes before this one event that we’re capturing at sentencing,” she says. “This law acknowledges that maybe the way that we sentence people and the way that we condemn people to spend decades of their life in prison is not, in fact, a fair and just way to treat human beings, and does not credit our complexity or our capacity for change.
“This act,” she says, “is one way to recognize what we’re slowly as a society coming to accept: that people can change, and that people are more than the worst thing they have done.”
I wonder if any of these would be intimate partner violence victims? I think it might be good to connect with the law school to determine the client base and wonder if they might collaborate with you.
Sue Ann Sisto