NEW YORK – A Rochester, N.Y., woman who was serving 20 years to life in prison for pickpocketing, is now free and turning her life around thanks to the work of Fordham Law Professor Martha Rayner and her team of students at Lincoln Square Legal Services, Fordham Law School’s legal clinic.
Yvonne Dockery was a lifelong heroin addict who had several arrests and convictions for shoplifting and pickpocketing. A judge labeled her a persistent offender and handed down the sentence. After exhausting her direct appeals, Dockery wrote to Fordham in the spring of 2002.
“When I got Yvonne’s letter, it was clear that she was an intelligent woman who had lived a very difficult life,” said Rayner, an associate clinical professor of law. “It was very obvious to me that what she needed was rehabilitation rather than being forced to spend the rest of her life in prison.”
After agreeing to take the case, Rayner and her team quickly concluded they had two options: appeal to Governor Pataki for clemency or find a way to get the judge to set aside the harsh sentence he imposed. They chose to go through the court system.
The key to the case came from Dockery herself. She told the students about a Supreme Court ruling that said a judge alone could not decide to increase someone’s sentence after the jury was dismissed. The team filed a motion to have New York’s sentencing law declared unconstitutional. They seemed to be on solid legal ground, but getting a law taken off the books is never easy. They needed a backup plan.
Professor Rayner suggested looking at Dockery’s original sentencing hearing to see if the judge did anything wrong. The students quickly found what they needed.
“The law the judge used to sentence Dockery required him to explain why she needed to spend an extended amount of time in prison,” said Peggy Farber (LAW ’04). “He never did that.”
The team gained additional confidence when a federal judge declared New York’s sentencing law to be unconstitutional, based on many of the same arguments in the clinic’s motion.
But after months of waiting, bad news arrived at the end of the spring semester—their motion had been denied. Yvonne Dockery would stay in prison.
“The students were crushed,” Rayner said. “But we also knew the fight wasn’t over. We quickly filed a motion to reargue.”
That motion was heard by a different judge, who promptly issued a decision overturning Dockery’s life sentence on the grounds that the original trial judge did not offer sufficient reasons for imposing it. She was re-sentenced to two-to-four years. Unfortunately, Dockery had already spent 10 years in prison by that time.
On August 26, 2003, Dockery was released from prison with only the clothes on her back. Rayner and the students arranged for her admission into a residential drug treatment program in Brooklyn.
“One of the key things we try to instill in Fordham’s law students is the role they can play in fighting for social justice,” Rayner said. “This case shows that passionate, persistent lawyers can make a real difference in people’s lives.”