Law and Order

Elizabeth Cara Donnelly, previously a Bureau Chief ADA, is now a Superior Court Judge in Manhattan, New York City.


Donnelly's career in law stretches back at least thirty years. As an assistant district attorney, she gained a reputation for toughness and won most of her cases. However, she experienced a notable loss during the case against Caroline Cresswell, a woman who had murdered her abusive husband. Donnelly had been assigned the case as it was believed a female prosecutor would make Caroline less sympathetic to the jury. However, Cresswell fled during a meeting to discuss a plea bargain, staining Donnelly's reputation. The failure kept Donnelly from being allowed to work in the Homicide Bureau again, and rookie ADAs making embarrassing mistakes would become known as "doing a Donnelly."

After a couple of years as a Bureau Chief ADA, Donnelly was elevated to a judgeship. While in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, however, she served as the supervisor of Alexandra Cabot and her successor, Casey Novak. Donnelly has presided over numerous cases Novak has prosecuted.


Donnelly had several heated arguments with her Assistant District Attorneys, and it has been speculated that she is vicious against them because they enjoy success, whereas her own career along those lines has been marked mainly by that one colossal failure. However, on one occasion when Cabot lied to her detectives about having a search warrant in order to convict a serial child molester, Donnelly let her off with a one-month suspension. (SVU: "Guilt") In the case against Jeremy Brice and Zachary Connor, she even had to take Cabot's place in the courtroom, because of her ADA's personal opinion regarding the case. Donnelly is very hard on Brice and feels guilty for it so she brings Cabot back in. Ultimately Donnelly offers him a plea bargain, but it is refused by his mother because she believes the jury will find him not guilty though Donnelly tries to get her not to take that chance. Ultimately Brice is found guilty. (SVU: "Juvenile")

When Casey Novak informally requested that she recuse herself from the Wayne Morten case, Donnelly is revealed to be pro-choice when it comes to abortion and against the detention of prisoners without trial at Guantanamo. Novak only reluctantly requested that Donnelly recuse herself on the orders of Arthur Branch, believing that Donnelly was incapable of being objective. Though Donnelly was outraged at the idea, she reluctantly agreed but warned Novak that, by playing politics with the law, she was heading down a slippery slope. (SVU: "Rockabye")

Casey Novak and Detective Elliot Stabler later come to her asking for her help in getting Mike Mollinax released. Novak asks her to set up a meeting with her friend the governor to grant a pardon to him. Although reluctant, she comes up with a solution that benefits all the parties involved: The governor will grant the pardon if Mollinax pleads guilty to a prison murder he committed and sentenced to time served for the murder and kidnapping he is innocent of. This way Mollinax is released and the upstate DA and warden get the conviction they want. The plan works and Mollinanx is released. (SVU: "Scheherazade")

Casey Novak and Elliot Stabler sought Donnelly's advice when a man suing for custody of his child opted to sue them for alleged conspiracy and assault. Rather than have the two risk trusting a civil servant or hiring an expensive lawyer to defend them, Donnelly chose to act as their defense attorney herself. The suits were dropped, however, following the man's arrest on kidnapping charges. Donnelly's defense of Stabler and Novak helped indirectly solve the case when the man's response to Donnelly's questioning on the stand caused Stabler to figure out where to get the evidence they needed. (SVU: "Haystack")

As Darius Parker went to trial for rape and murder, he dug up dirt to use against the SVU squad, and Donnelly presided over the case. As Parker and his attorney questioned each members's veracity and credibility, Stabler was questioned about making his daughter's drunk-driving charges disappear. Donnelly, clearly worried by this line questioning, announced she would recuse herself since she was aware of this matter. (She had confronted Stabler earlier about this, when he had criticized Donnelly's decision regarding four teenagers using alcohol, in (SVU: "Responsible"). In chambers, she said that Stabler was close to perjury, thereby forcing her to recuse herself. She then told Stabler she would make sure his daughter would face DUI charges. (SVU: "Screwed")

During the case against a police officer accused of rape and murder, Novak withheld documents in violation of the Brady Rules. She had been informed that DNA samples from a rape suspect were too degraded to provide anything more than a partial profile, resulting in Judge Donnelly having her called before the Bar association, who seemingly placed a temporary suspension on Novak's license to practice law in New York. (SVU: "Cold")

Several months later, after an abused young wife named Mia Latimer was stabbed by her husband, Caroline Cresswell surfaced as Linnie Malcolm, Mia's neighbor and sole confidant. When Mia was murdered, Cresswell called 911 so her fingerprints were found on the phone. Seeing a second chance, Donnelly took a leave of absence to return to the DA's office to prosecute the case herself despite now being a judge. Donnelly disbelieved Cresswell's story that she was raped, as she had never told it to anyone before she was caught by Benson and there was no proof of it. Donnelly believed that Cresswell was merely a manipulative woman trying to get away with murder and was playing on Benson's and, in the past, Donnelly's, sympathizes to that end.

Donnelly sought the maximum penalty for Cresswell's crimes, but relented when Cresswell explained - to Donnelly's surprise, indeed to her shock and horror - that she had fled because she was pregnant with her former husband's child (which she had become pregnant with due to the rape), and desperately wanted an abortion, which would not have been available in prison. She had originally asked for the meeting with Donnelly to agree to plead guilty if Donnelly let her get the abortion, but had lost her nerve because of how strong of a woman Donnelly was compared to her. Donnelly claimed that it was a dramatic, and harsh, reminder of why she had even chosen to practice law in the first place, and after Cresswell was found guilty of the escape, but not guilty of the murder, she announced that she would seek probation at her sentencing, which the presiding judge agreed with. (SVU: "Persona")

Some months later, the SVU caught a murder case in Central Park. An extreme paranoiac named Peter Harrison had killed a young mother in the park, and had left a lot of evidence. However, during the processing of that evidence, CSU technician Dale Stuckey had made a mistake on the paperwork for the murder weapon that would have allowed Harrison's attorney to claim that the police had planted Harrison's prints on the weapon. Though this in itself would not necessarily have gotten Harrison off for the crime, it created a situation whereby any attempt to prosecute Harrison might have set a precedent for other criminals to challenge the DNA evidence against them, and thus the DA's office chose to dismiss the case. Donnelly was the judge that day, and Stuckey attempted to protest the decision to drop the charges. Donnelly loudly and publicly berated him for his incompetence.

Never on the firmest emotional ground to begin with, Stuckey snapped and began killing people associated with Harrison in an attempt to have new charges brought against him. Donnelly was one of the unlucky targets, and received a shot of potassium chloride that had been hidden in a chair in her house resulting in her near death. However, Elliot and Olivia were able to take her to a hospital where she made a recovery. (SVU: "Zebras")

She returned as the trial judge in the case against Defense Attorney Ingrid Block. (SVU: "Confidential")

Prosecutions handled


Cases tried

  • Recused herself from the case.
  • Case halted due to lawsuit from the Carthage family and the National Gun Association charging Donnelly, ADA Casey Novak and Phelps's attorney Sophie Devere as defendants. Dismissed the case against Phelps in civil court with help from Novak and Devere in order to prevent a devastating precedent to the legal system.
  • Dismissed case against Pratt and Waverly due to insufficient evidence against defendants.
  • Released the defendant on her own recognizance and ordered her not to associate with any minors besides her daughter.
  • Ordered the police to get a statement from Becca proving she got the alcohol from Lillian or their new case against Lillian is dismissed. The case moves forward after Becca's statement is given.
  • Denied a Right-of-Appearance waiver motion to ensure Parker would stand trial.
  • Abruptly recused herself during trial when Elliot Stabler denied any knowledge of his daughter's drunk-driving charges disappearing in order to prevent him from committing perjury and transferred the case to Judge Peter Harrison.
  • Entered a verdict of not guilty to facilitating Renee Simmons' murder on behalf of the jury.


  • Dismissed the criminally negligent homicide charge, released them into the custody of their parents pending trial, and ordered them not to drink any alcohol.
  • Released them again after they broke the order not to drink but had them rearrested after seeing them defy her order again.
  • Found them in contempt of court to serve time in a juvenile facility and has them put on academic probation, banning them for athletics, extracurricular activities, and prom. Ordered daily urine tests to ensure their sobriety.
  • Dismissed the charges due to lack of evidence.