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A New York Law Could Reduce Sentences for Domestic Violence Survivors. Why Are Judges Reluctant to Apply It?

The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act allows judges to consider shorter sentences, as well as non-prison sentences, if abuse factored significantly in the crime.

Panpreeda Mahaly/EyeEm/Getty Images.

On Feb. 11, Nikki Addimando appeared shackled, handcuffed, and trembling, in a Poughkeepsie, New York, courtroom to learn her fate. The 31-year-old mother had been convicted last April for the 2017 death of her boyfriend Christopher Grover and was facing between 15 years to life to 25 years to life in prison—the recommended state guidelines. 

During her nearly monthlong trial, Addimando testified for three days about the violence she had suffered at the hands of Grover, including sexual assault, beatings, burnings, having videos of her sexual and physical abuse uploaded to a porn site, and repeated death threats. She also testified about enduring violence from several other people. Multiple witnesses testified about seeing wounds, including black eyes, bruises, and burn marks. Nonetheless, the jury convicted her of second-degree murder, a Class A-1 felony, as well as criminal possession of a weapon. 

In September, she filed a motion for consideration under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, a state law passed last spring. If her application was granted, the judge could reduce her sentence to five to 15 years. 

But despite hours of testimony from her two therapists and a psychiatric expert, as well as medical records documenting her injuries, Judge Edward McLoughlin ruled on Feb. 5 that Addimando’s abuse history was “undetermined and inconsistent, regarding the extent of the abuse, as well as the identity of her abuser(s)” and that “the nature of the alleged abusive relationship … is undetermined.” 

He sentenced her to 19 years to life, with credit for time served, for second-degree murder and a concurrent 15 years and five years of post-release supervision for the weapons conviction.

Addimando is now the second woman to be denied consideration under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act since it took effect. Advocates and lawyers suggest bias and long-held misunderstandings around domestic violence contribute to judges’ reluctance to implement the law. 

Andrea Bible, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society who has worked with abuse survivors facing criminal charges since the 1990s, told The Appeal, “It may be more difficult for [judges] to imagine what it’s like to navigate life from a place where you lack resources and your options are constrained not only by socially imposed limits, but also by a person in your life who is exerting control over you or abusing you.”

After years of advocacy and organizing by formerly incarcerated abuse survivors, New York passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act in May 2019. The law allows judges to consider the role of abuse in a person’s crime and sentencing. If after a hearing, a judge finds that abuse played a significant role in the commission of a crime, that judge can issue a shorter prison term than state sentencing guidelines recommend. The judge can also, in some instances, sentence the survivor to probation or an alternative-to-incarceration program, such as the one run by Steps to End Family Violence in New York City. The act also allows abuse survivors incarcerated before the law’s passage to apply for resentencing.

Taylor Partlow, a 26-year-old convicted of first-degree manslaughter in the stabbing death of her boyfriend, was the first person to be potentially eligible under the law. At trial, Partlow, as well as five witnesses, testified that her boyfriend was repeatedly physically violent. 

But the testimony was not enough to sway a jury or state Supreme Court Justice Russell Buscaglia, who, despite acknowledging the abuse, stated at her sentencing hearing, “The abuse, No. 1, was not substantial abuse and not a significant contributing factor to your behavior.” He did not approve her application under the new law.

Buscaglia did, however, sentence Partlow to eight years in prison—much less time than the 25-year maximum that state guidelines recommend for first-degree manslaughter. Buscaglia’s office said he would not comment on sentencing because Partlow is appealing her conviction.

Although the judge in Addimando’s case cited similar reasoning for not granting her eligibility, he suggested that Addimando could have left Grover either before that fatal September evening or earlier that day. He wrote that “she had a tremendous amount of advice, assistance, support, and opportunities to escape her abusive situation, and thereby avoid the decision to take the life of Christopher Grover.” (The following week, before issuing a sentence, he reiterated this belief, noting that, Addimando had her own car, a job, a group of supportive friends, and access to the county’s domestic violence resources.)

I didn’t fit the depiction of a battered woman because I had a good job, a car, a little in the bank. The DA in my case said, ‘A real battered woman doesn’t have these things.’

Kim DaDou Brown domestic violence survivor and project associate at the Women and Justice Project

That line of judicial reasoning is not uncommon in cases involving survivors of gender violence. In Alabama, Brittany Smith attempted to argue that her case qualified as self-defense under the state’s Stand Your Ground law, which would allow her immunity from prosecution in the shooting death of a man whom she alleged had raped and threatened to kill her earlier that night. But the judge rejected her motion, stating that Smith had “many opportunities to seek protection from Todd” without shooting him.

Ending, or even attempting to end, a relationship often results in an abusive partner escalating his violence and abuse, Bible notes. According to several studies, “growing evidence” shows that separation, or the threat of it, is a “significant precipitant of partner homicides by men.”  

Kim DaDou Brown, project associate at the Women and Justice Project, can attest to this personally. DaDou Brown attempted to escape her abusive boyfriend numerous times during their five-year relationship. Each time, she recalled, “he would follow me, stalk me, wait outside my job.” 

In December 1991, DaDou Brown fatally shot her boyfriend as he attempted to strangle her. “At my trial, I didn’t fit the depiction of a battered woman because I had a good job, a car, a little in the bank,” she said. “The DA in my case said, ‘A real battered woman doesn’t have these things.’”She was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 8 ⅓  to 25 years in prison. In 2008, she was paroled after serving 17 years and became an advocate for the passage of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. (Had the act been law and a judge found her eligible, her sentence would have been one to five years, or even probation.) 

The reluctance to consider the role of abuse, even when encouraged by the law, is not unique to New York. In 2015, Illinois lawmakers amended the state’s sentencing laws to allow judges to consider the role of abuse in a crime. But there is no mechanism to track whether judges have been applying it to the sentences meted out to survivors. Chicago-based legal organization Cabrini Green Legal Aid has met with dozens of imprisoned survivors and helped them apply for resentencing; Rachel White-Domain, who provides post-conviction assistance to abuse survivors, has been tracking their outcomes. Of those dozens, she knows of two who have been resentenced and released thus far. 

“While we won some change in sentencing laws, we have not won the change in the culture that we would need to have for women not to be punished when they act to save their lives,” said Gail T. Smith, a Chicago attorney who helped push for the amendment’s passage. 

In New York, at least one currently imprisoned survivor has succeeded in being resentenced thus far. She had already served the majority of her prison sentence and was facing another five years of parole. Last month, a judge changed the terms of her sentence to time served so that she was no longer under supervision upon release.

Through tears, Addimando told the court this month, “I wish more than anything it had ended any other way, I was afraid to stay, I was afraid to leave, that no one would believe me. This is why women don’t leave. … So often we end up dead or are alive but still not free.” 

In an email to The Appeal, Garrard R. Beeney, Addimando’s appellate attorney acknowledged the tragedy for Addimando’s and Grover’s families. But he added that “the proceedings demonstrated a profound misunderstanding of the horrific impact of domestic violence on its victims.” He said Addimando will appeal her conviction and “her papers will show the numerous statutory and constitutional rights she was deprived of that led to her conviction.”

DaDou Brown, who was among the dozens of supporters in the courtroom, told The Appeal in an email that she was “devastated about what happened” to Addimando. The judge “distorted what the DVSJA says and what it’s supposed to do,” she wrote. ”We know that the fight for justice is a marathon not a sprint, and so we stay hopeful that the appellate court will give Nikki the relief that she and all criminalized survivors deserve.”