As Geneva Cooley took her first, timid steps outside of prison, two of the attorneys who helped her gain her freedom walked closely behind.
Courtney Cross, Director of the Law School’s Domestic Violence Clinic, and Terrika Shaw, Staff Attorney for the Law School’s Elder Clinic, watched as Cooley took her first steps of freedom. They were accompanied by recent graduates and former Domestic Violence Clinic students Kari Todd and Jilisa Milton, who had both been working on the case for over a year.
“They were a good inspiration to me, and they worked diligently to help me get out. And I thank them,” Ms. Cooley said moments after her release.
Cooley, 72, had been incarcerated for 17 years, first at Jefferson County Jail and later at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka. She had been sentenced to life without parole for drug trafficking, but a chance encounter with Susan Burton, an advocate for incarcerated women, changed all of that. So appalled that a woman had been sentenced to life without parole for a nonviolent drug offense, Burton, a formerly incarcerated woman herself who now counts celebrities among her friends, reached out to her network, to see if she could find someone to help.
That network eventually led to the desk of Professor Cross. She began her legal career at a nonprofit working with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, so she arranged a meeting with Cooley and took two student attorneys with her. After meeting Cooley and hearing the story of how she received the mandatory minimum of life without parole for traveling from New York to Birmingham in 2002 to pick up heroin and deliver it for a man she thought was a friend, they all agreed they should try to help Cooley gain her freedom.
“Meeting a then 71-year-old woman in prison who was resigned to the fact that she was court-ordered to die there, thousands of miles away from home and family, was more than we could bear,” Cross said.
The case, though, had its challenges. For starters, the state of Alabama doesn’t have a clemency remedy, and Cooley was far too healthy for a compassionate release.
“It was seeming pretty bleak, but the letters Kari and I were collecting from friends and family confirmed that we had to keep trying,” Cross said.
Birmingham native Shaw soon joined the case, bringing an expertise in elder issues and a robust network in Jefferson County, as did Criminal Defense Attorney Joel Sogol, who is a Trial Advocacy Adjunct Professor for the Law School.
“I have always felt that life without parole was a bad sentence for anybody, but especially for a non-violent crime,” Sogol said. “Our first issue was how do we get into court.”
The team decided to file yet another post-conviction motion in Cooley’s criminal case. In preparation, several Alabama Law students, including Milton, Jared Blanton, and Tonte Fenny, took a deep dive in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. At the same time, they closely watched the Jefferson County District Attorney’s race. With a new district attorney and a new judge assigned to the case, the team felt like they could have a chance.
The team submitted a Rule 32 Petition and exhibits, arguing that Cooley’s sentence of life without was a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Danny Carr, the newly elected district attorney, did not oppose a request for resentencing from life without parole to life with the possibility of parole, and Judge Stephen Wallace found that the Eighth Amendment required this resentencing.
On August 8, 2019, the Board of Pardons and Paroles granted parole to Cooley. Two months later, she walked out of prison.
Cooley will live in transitional housing in Montgomery until her parole can be transferred to New York, and she looks forward to seeing her family in New York. “First of all,” she said, “I want to bond with my kids and grandkids, my great-grandson, people I haven’t seen in a while.” After that, she plans to tell her story to anyone who will listen, to be an advocate, especially for young people.