In 2021, Sanctuary for Families honored a compassionate and perseverant team of pro bono attorneys from Davis Polk who employed New York’s revolutionary Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (“DVSJA”) to secure the release of “Chloe,” a survivor of severe domestic abuse and sex trafficking. The team includes Pro Bono Counsel Dara L. Sheinfeld, Counsel Denis J. McInerney, associates Don Levavi and Stephanie Mazursky, and former associates Timothy Horley and Patrick Moroney.
The DVSJA, which was passed in 2019, provides judges greater discretion in sentencing when domestic abuse significantly contributed to the crime for which the person was convicted. The Act also allows for re-sentencing of incarcerated survivors like Chloe.
Chloe is a survivor of terrible abuse at the hands of her trafficker. Under the guise of a loving boyfriend, her trafficker convinced her to travel with him from upstate NY to the Bronx, leaving her young child behind with her family. Once in the Bronx, her trafficker cut her off from her family and friends, prevented her from having access to a cellphone of her own, and surveilled her minute-by-minute, even going so far as to sit outside the bathroom while she showered. Her trafficker abused her physically on a daily basis and also abused her psychologically and emotionally. He forced her into prostitution and even made her get a tattoo of his name across her neck – a common branding technique used by traffickers.
In a tragic incident, Chloe’s trafficker killed a buyer who had paid to have sex with Chloe. When Davis Polk began working with Chloe, she was serving a 10-year sentence for robbery, a crime related to the buyer’s death. Remarkably, after four months of intensive work in partnership with the Legal Aid Society and Sanctuary for Families, the Davis Polk team was able to successfully secure Chloe’s release under the DVSJA.
The Davis Polk team recognized that the key to the case was highlighting the psychological factors that undermined Chloe’s lack of agency in connection with her crime of conviction. To that end, Davis Polk engaged a recognized expert psychologist to meet with Chloe, explore the nature of her relationship with her trafficker, and evaluate her agency at the time. The psychologist concluded that Chloe suffered from “trauma bonding,” a phenomenon in which there is a powerful emotional attachment to an abusive partner which often remains even after the relationship ends.
Trauma bonds are formed when three main conditions are met:
The existence of an imbalance of power between the abuser and victim
The use of coercive control tactics, and
The intermittent reward and punishment that the abuser metes out in the course of the relationship.
These factors, combined with isolation, gaslight the abused into an almost worshipful dependence on the abuser. The DVSJA permitted the court to take these psychological factors into consideration in connection with Chloe’s re-sentencing.
The case was highly challenging. One difficulty in employing the DVSJA for re-sentencing, as team member and former Davis Polk attorney Patrick Moroney remarked, is that “you go before the same judge who initially imposed the sentence” and who might be reluctant to disturb that previous decision. In Chloe’s case, securing the support of the District Attorney’s Office proved crucial. While the Davis Polk team worked tirelessly with Chloe to prepare and submit her DVSJA application, engaged in extensive communications with the DA’s Office regarding the merits of the application and arranged for Chloe to be interviewed by the DA’s Office for several hours, all of which resulted in the DA’s Office joining in the application, the Court still required the District Attorney’s Office to submit a full written response to the petition. As a true testament to their commitment to re-sentencing, the DA’s Office promptly submitted a detailed set of papers explaining their reasoning for joining in the application within just hours of the Court’s order.
The prosecution’s willingness to support the DVSJA application was facilitated by the collaborative, open approach that both defense counsel and the DA’s Office took in handling this case. Davis Polk team leader, Counsel Denis McInerney, who serves as President of Sanctuary’s Board and supervises many DVSJA matters at the firm, noted that the defense team’s history with the DA’s Office in a prior similarly successful DVSJA application — which also centered on open lines of communications in which the defense provided the prosecutors with a thorough and candid evaluation of the facts and legal issues in the case – undoubtedly helped to establish the trust one wants in order to have an effective dialogue with the DA’s Office. In Moroney’s words, the team “gave them access to Chloe [and] the documents,” and answered all of their questions. McInerney believes that this approach of being rigorous in one’s factual and legal analysis while at the same time treating the prosecution as “allies” helps tremendously in persuading DA’s Offices to respond rapidly and sympathetically to meritorious DVSJA applications.
Davis Polk demonstrated not only legal acumen but humanity in their representation of Chloe. In anticipation of her release, the team sought therapy services for Chloe, and even provided a car service for her five-plus hour drive home from prison—with a stop at Walmart included! Davis Polk team member Stephanie Mazursky said that she learned patience, compassion, and the power of positive reinforcement from her relationship with Chloe – a relationship that was difficult to build, not only because it required Chloe to revisit traumatic memories, but because conversations took place almost exclusively over the phone due to COVID restrictions at the prison. Now, with the benefit of her early release and without the burden of any post-release supervision, Chloe has emerged from her incarceration with the unfettered freedom to participate in her child’s growth and to spend time with her loved ones.
This story was originally published on Sanctuary for Families' website. Click here to read the article.