Tulane Law School has received a nearly $2 million gift to expand an innovative clinical program providing legal services and advocacy for imprisoned women who were victims of domestic violence, Dean David Meyer announced.
The anonymous gift will support the Women’s Prison Project (WPP), a first-of-its-kind collaboration between Tulane’s Domestic Violence and Criminal Justice clinics focused on cases involving a domestic violence survivor charged with killing an abuser or for having committed crimes under an abuser’s coercion or duress.
Totaling $1.9 million over four years, the gift will enable Tulane to hire two clinical professors and three professional staff members to dramatically expand the WPP’s impact.
“The WPP reflects the best of what makes Tulane’s clinical program so special,” said Dean Meyer. “It arose from the insights and ambition of our faculty and prepares students for successful careers while addressing urgent needs in society.”
“We could not be more grateful to the generous donors for their vision and partnership in making this possible,” Meyer said.
Tulane President Mike Fitts echoed Meyer’s gratitude for the gift and the important work it will fund.
“This gift supports the kind of bold, impactful and transformative efforts that are at the heart of Tulane’s educational mission,” Fitts said. “We prepare our students to do good, to promote justice and to improve the human condition, not only as future leaders, but here and now, through a hands-on, life-changing curriculum.”
Founded by Professor Becki Kondkar, director of Tulane’s Domestic Violence Clinic, and Professor Katherine Mattes, director of Tulane’s Criminal Justice Clinic, the WPP tapped into a long-ignored crisis: women’s contact with the criminal justice system often arises from their victimization by violent partners.
“We are so fortunate to have a donor who supports the bold action and expansive vision necessary to address this problem,” Kondkar said.
The gift will enable a fully-staffed WPP and student-attorneys to represent domestic violence survivors who killed abusive partners through clemency and parole hearings before the Pardon and Parole Board and to work on post-conviction cases where the client’s history of abuse were inadequately addressed at trial.
The overarching goal, said Kondkar, is to end the practice of punishing and incarcerating domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking survivors in Louisiana, through law and policy reform, training, and education.
"There are so many women in Louisiana sentenced to die in prison for defending themselves. We have a lot to do, but we have a lot of hope,” said Mattes. “Hope because the time is ripe for reform; hope because there is a growing awareness about intimate partner violence; and hope we get from these women who, despite everything, haven’t given up."
Kondkar, who has spent more than 20 years representing survivors of abuse, began conceptualizing the project several years ago when working on a case involving a trafficking victim sentenced to life in prison.
“During a time when #Metoo has captured the public’s consciousness on issues related to gender, these incarcerated women have remained invisible. It was time to do something bold to raise them into our public consciousness,” Kondkar said.
Kondkar and Mattes joined forces and began examining the cases of women imprisoned for killing domestic partners in self-defense. They engaged student-attorneys to help and advocate before law enforcement, court officials and the Louisiana Board of Parole.
According to Kondkar and Mattes, women are uniquely vulnerable to wrongful convictions when they defend their lives against abusive men. The problem results, in part, from self-defense laws that are not tailored to modern understandings of domestic violence.
“Women’s experiences of abuse become both buried and distorted by a justice system that first fails to take their experiences of abuse seriously, and then punishes them for protecting themselves,” said Kondkar.
In Louisiana, the problem is among the worst in the nation. Louisiana consistently ranks among the top four states in the nation of women killed by men. A recent Amnesty International Report on domestic violence in Louisiana documented, extensively, the barriers Louisiana women face when seeking protection in the justice system. Domestic violence services are woefully underfunded, and courts fail to protect women before a homicide occurs.
Yet when women in Louisiana are convicted for killing abusive partners, they are often sentenced to life in prison under draconian mandatory sentencing guidelines for second-degree murder.
This Project aims to both remedy the injustices of the past, and promote changes to the law that will prevent these injustices from continuing.
Through both direct client advocacy and the creation of a regional “think-tank” on these issues, the WPP will help pave the way for reforms that are sorely needed in Louisiana and around the country, said Kondkar, who was recently appointed to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence.
The WPP’s cases have already made an immeasurable impact on a number of families, and, along with them, Tulane Law students.
Through the WPP, students in both clinics gain hands-on legal training, and work directly with clients. Courtney Crowell, a 2019 graduate now practicing law in New Orleans, was among the first students to work with the WPP as a third-year law student.
Crowell represented a woman who has spent almost a quarter of a century in prison for killing her estranged, abusive boyfriend when he kicked her door open, entered her home, and strangled her.
Crowell’s work with the client, documenting the cycle of domestic violence and its impact on one family, was the perfect snapshot of the state’s inadequate protection of a victim to bring before the state’s Pardon and Parole Board.
Crowell’s client has led a model life in prison, mentoring other women, creating programs to help other inmates, and making sure her sister and daughter graduated from college.
“It was completely life changing for me, personally and professionally,” said Crowell. “I realized the power behind a law degree. Having that license should be a reason to give back to others, to make life better for someone else, not just for self-gain.”
“It completely changed my priorities and showed me the kind of lawyer I want to be, and how I want to build my legal career.”
Crowell’s client, along with two other WPP clients, now have commutation requests awaiting approval by the governor’s office. In the three cases, domestic violence victims were in their own homes when they killed abusers who attacked them. Many of the Project’s cases involve women in their sixties or seventies who have spent decades in prison and are in failing health.
“If the average citizen were to know and understand the extent to which women are languishing in Louisiana’s prisons for defending their own lives - in their own homes- they would be shocked. The fact that these women will die in our prisons if we do nothing, is something every citizen should know about and care about,” Kondkar said.