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Criminal Defense and Advocacy Clinic Wins Release from Prison for Abuse Survivors

10/01/2020

The Criminal Defense and Advocacy Clinic (CDAC), led by Professor Kate Mogulescu, won the release from prison of two survivors of abuse under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, a groundbreaking new law in New York signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2019. In September, after serving nearly 22 years, Patrice Smith was the first person to be released under the act in September for a murder conviction. In 1999, at the age of 16, Smith was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the killing of a 71-year-old reverend who had been paying her for sex for nearly a year, asking her to recruit other teenagers for commercial sex, and threatening to tell her father about their “relationship” if she did not continue to submit to his sexual abuse. In August, Mulumba Kazigo was the second person to be released under the act after serving 15 years in prison for killing his father, who had been violently abusive toward his entire family. 

These successes were made possible by two grants from the Vital Projects Fund to launch the clinic’s newest initiative, the Survivors Justice Project. In this program, clinic students work closely with Mogulescu to utilize the new act to help prevent the incarceration of criminalized survivors of domestic violence and to bring home survivors currently in prison. The program prioritizes collaboration with partner organizations and advocates, and is led by an advisory group of formerly incarcerated women, many of whom are survivors of domestic violence themselves. 

Last winter, 13 students involved in the spring clinic were able to work on eight resentencing cases involving individuals in state prison. The students had the opportunity to go to the prisons to interview incarcerated survivors before the COVID-19 pandemic prevented travel.

“The traditional clinic defense model is to have students work on an array of misdemeanors, but not to necessarily specialize in a particular charge or area of practice,” said Mogulescu, a former public defender who founded the clinic in 2017. “Building a project focused in this way allows students to develop deep expertise while filling a very critical need for representation.”

As the pandemic spread, while still managing their existing client relationships and caseloads, Brooklyn Law students also worked with CUNY graduate students to build a robust database that tracks 487 incarcerated women who may be eligible for resentencing. Students started doing outreach to those women, and filed applications for medical release for incarcerated individuals who were at greater risk for contracting COVID-19.

“Learning to connect with and advocate for clients through remote methods, such as phone interviews or email, has improved my ability to communicate and connect with people,” said Mia Guthart ’21. “Additionally, the community within CDAC has been a bright light during the isolating reality of working remotely. I came to Brooklyn Law School to start a career in public defense, and my experience in CDAC has only further solidified my interest in this advocacy.”