Securing Clemency for a Domestic Violence Survivor
An all-women team from Latham & Watkins succeeded in achieving clemency in New York State for Jacqueline Smalls, a 60-year-old survivor of domestic abuse incarcerated for killing her abuser, in December 2022. This victory is a momentous step in Governor Kathy Hochul’s public commitment to helping domestic violence survivors and granting clemencies on a rolling basis. It’s also a victory for Ms. Smalls, who has been incarcerated for over a decade.
Ms. Smalls endured years of severe abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, who was arrested on multiple occasions for violently attacking her. On August 26, 2012, sensing the escalation and fearing the violence she knew was coming, Ms. Smalls stabbed her abuser once, killing him. At the time, she had two orders of protection in effect against him. “My abuser’s hands were his weapons,” she said.
Prosecutors charged Ms. Smalls with second-degree murder, disregarding any impact of the domestic abuse she suffered. Eventually Ms. Smalls pled guilty to a lesser charge of first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2013. According to the Bureau of Justice, approximately 50% of women incarcerated in the US have been physically abused, and abuse and trauma can lead to criminal conduct. Furthermore, these individuals tend to have extremely low rates of recidivism.
“Our team was passionate about achieving justice for Ms. Smalls. She never gave up hope while we vigorously pursued alternate paths to freedom. We are absolutely thrilled with this result for Ms. Smalls and her family.”Jamie Wine, partner, New York
Achieving clemency for Ms. Smalls required significant strategic direction from the Latham team. Although Ms. Smalls is eligible for resentencing under the recently enacted and pioneering Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA), resentencing efforts for domestic abuse survivors like Ms. Smalls have been met with resistance by various governmental bodies. In addition, pursuing resentencing or release under DVSJA would have required Ms. Smalls to undergo a traumatizing re-hearing. Given these considerations, the Latham team decided to pivot and pursue clemency for Ms. Smalls.
“Our team was passionate about achieving justice for Ms. Smalls. She never gave up hope while we vigorously pursued alternate paths to freedom. We are absolutely thrilled with this result for Ms. Smalls and her family,” said partner Jamie Wine, who supervised the Latham team.
Latham prepared and made presentations to the offices of Governor Hochul and the Schenectady County District Attorney. As importantly, the Latham team worked closely with Ms. Smalls to understand her story, to marshal the facts, and to present a compelling narrative. Throughout this process, our lawyers were assisted by Sanctuary for Families, Latham’s long-standing pro bono partner organization, and coordinated with a team at Davis Polk & Wardwell, led by counsel and head of pro bono litigation, Dara Sheinfeld.
As a result of the team’s persuasive efforts, Governor Hochul’s office fully supported the strategy. In her statement announcing clemency for Ms. Smalls and 12 other incarcerated people just ahead of the 2022 holidays, Governor Hochul noted that “[c]lemency is a powerful tool that can be exercised to advance the interests of justice and fairness, and to recognize efforts made by individuals to improve not only their own lives but the lives of those around them.”
Ms. Smalls was released from prison in January 2023. Since her release, Ms. Smalls has been spending time with her family, volunteering with survivors of domestic violence, completing her GED, and pursuing her love of cooking and sharing food with others.
The Latham team was honored to receive Sanctuary for Families’ Above & Beyond award for this work in October 2023.
Article updated on January 10, 2024