Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual violence.
Early on the morning of September 27, 2017, Poughkeepsie police officer Richard Sisilli pulled up behind a red Dodge Caliber. Stopped at a red light, a woman exited the car; Sisilli noticed that she wasn’t wearing shoes, and that two children were in car seats inside the vehicle. Sisilli later testified that the woman, Nicole Addimando, told him “she tried to leave, but he said he would kill her. … She said he’s still in the apartment and the gun had just gone off.” He discerned that Addimando had gotten in a fight with her live-in boyfriend and father of her children, Christopher Grover, which ended when she shot him out of fear for her life. Then she left the house.
Grover was later found deceased by the cops, and Addimando was eventually indicted on charges of second-degree murder, first-degree and second-degree manslaughter, and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. She pled not guilty, claiming that the shooting was in self-defense, and her lawyer said that Addimando had suffered “horrific abuse” from Grover.
During the trial in 2019, the extent of Addimando’s suffering was made horrifyingly clear. Addimando, a survivor of childhood sexual assault, said that Grover began forcing himself on her a couple of years into their relationship. He physically and mentally abused her; forcibly penetrated her with homemade sex toys and foreign objects, including handguns; and filmed multiple rapes, posting them to PornHub.
At one point during the relationship, Addimando’s social-services worker administered a domestic-violence risk assessment, which placed her in the highest-risk category for homicide. But she resisted reporting Grover to the authorities. Writing for the New Yorker in December, journalist Rachel Louise Snyder called Addimando’s abuse “among the most extreme I have ever come across in a decade of reporting on domestic violence.” (The details of Addimando’s case are drawn from Snyder’s story, court records, and reporting in the Poughkeepsie Journal.)
According to the CDC, nearly one in five women report having experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetimes. But there are innumerable circumstances that prevent victims from leaving: lack of money, support, and/or places to go, as well as fear of reprisal and/or losing custody of children. A commonly cited statistic is that it takes women, on average, at least seven attempts to leave an abusive partner. And a 2003 study demonstrated that the most dangerous time for an abuse victim is when they are in the process of leaving the relationship.
In short, many victims see no better options, and don’t have the means to lay the groundwork for a safe exit strategy. Sarah Caprioli, the social worker and trauma therapist who administered Addimando’s risk assessment, testified that Addimando tried to leave Grover permanently several times. “Caprioli said Addimando was still in love with Grover, and hopeful the abuse would end,” reported the Poughkeepsie Journal. “She said Addimando was also afraid her family would not believe her, and fearful that she would lose custody of her children.”
After three days of deliberations in April of last year, Addimando was found guilty of second-degree murder and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. The verdict was a statistical outlier: in New York, the burden falls on prosecutors to disprove a self-defense justification beyond a reasonable doubt. Since the 1950s, at least nine women in Dutchess County claimed self-defense after killing their partners, and none were convicted.
But while the harm on Addimando’s body was self-evident, the prosecutors of her case were able to convince the jury that she had shot Grover while he was sleeping, and thus that the threat on her life was not imminent. According to an analysis of court records performed by the Poughkeepsie Journal, Addimando “appears to be the first woman in Dutchess convicted of murder despite raising a self-defense justification, and the second woman convicted of murder under any circumstances.”
New Legislation for Domestic Violence Victims
The verdict carried a maximum sentence of 25 years to life. But in April, Addimando’s sentencing was delayed; the following month, Governor Cuomo signed into law the Domestic Violence Justice Survivors Act, which amends penal and criminal procedure law to allow judges to reduce sentences for domestic abuse survivors and redirect sentencing from incarceration to community-based programs.
The DVSJA applies to all survivors of domestic abuse regardless of gender or sex, but women are more than twice as likely to be victims of intimate partner violence. According to research cited in the legislation, “93 percent of women convicted of killing an intimate partner were abused by an intimate partner in the past.” A 2005 ACLU report backs this up, finding that 79 percent of women in federal and state prisons reported physical abuse and more than 60 percent reported past sexual abuse.
The problem is only getting worse. The dramatic rise of female incarceration rates is an oft-overlooked aspect of US criminal-justice policy, and since women tend to be the primary caretakers of children, the harmful consequences of this trend are felt across generations. In a 2018 article for the New Yorker titled “America’s Other Family-Separation Crisis,” the journalist Sarah Stillman went deep into the devastating effects that sending women to prison can have on children. Stillman writes:
America imprisons women in astonishing numbers. The population of women in state prisons has increased by more than 800 percent in the past four decades. The number of women in local jails is 14 times higher than it was in the 1970s; most of these women haven’t been convicted of a crime but are too poor to post bail while awaiting trial. The majority have been charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession, shoplifting, and parole violations. The result is that more than a quarter of a million children in the US have a mother in jail. One in nine black children has a parent who is, or has been, incarcerated.
The State of New York, for its part, has been working for some time to amend the penal code for abuse victims who commit a crime in self-defense, though it took a while to get where we are today. The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act was first introduced in 2011, four years after the State Sentencing Commission recommended that domestic violence be considered in sentencing, and more than a decade after the first sentencing reforms issued an exception for victims of domestic violence who committed first-time violent felonies. This comes at a time of federal negligence, as the 1994 Violence Against Women Act lapsed last February. Attempts at renewing it have broken down along partisan lines.
In September, Addimando returned to court seeking to be resentenced under the new law, which could lower her maximum sentence to 5-to-15 years. The barrier of proof differs from that required to prove self-defense, which requires an imminent threat on the victim’s life. According to the DVSJA, a judge could grant an alternative sentence if they find that: (1) the defendant was, at the time of the offense, a victim of domestic violence subjected to substantial physical, sexual, or psychological abuse inflicted by a spouse, intimate partner, or relative; (2) the abuse was a “significant contributing factor” to the defendant’s participation in the crime; and (3) a sentence under current law would be “unduly harsh.”
The prosecution will seek to exploit that grey area. “This Court does not need to determine whether or not the defendant was the victim of domestic violence,” one of the prosecutors wrote in their response to Addimando’s submission for resentencing. The new statute, the prosecutor claims, “is very clear, not close in time, not recent, but at the time of the offense.”
The hearing is scheduled for February 11. If the judge decides Addimando’s case is eligible to be resentenced under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, she could be the first person convicted of murder to be resentenced under the new guidelines.
Giving judges more discretion during sentencing, which the DVSJA permits, does not fix what ails America’s criminal-justice system. But allowing judicial flexibility in other areas of sentencing law has let in a little bit of humanity to what can be an inhumane process, leading to reduced or alternative sentences for drug offenders, for example.
In an article last May for The Atlantic titled “When Abuse Victims Commit Crimes,” journalist Victoria Law chronicled the movement to consider the role of domestic violence in criminal sentencing, and the outcomes in states that have introduced legislation similar to the DVSJA. But Law writes: “While public understanding about domestic violence has expanded, race and class can still influence perceptions of victimhood. And women who allege they were abused continue to face long sentences for their crimes.”
These efforts are of a piece with a nascent trend in criminal-justice reform that views criminalized behavior as a consequence of systemic circumstances; a widening of the lens that allows the system to account for the context in which criminalized behavior exists.
This is crucially important, since the United States treats criminals as second-class citizens, stripping them of otherwise “inalienable” rights. The national crime rate is at a historic low, but America’s incarceration rate remains the highest in the world, and there are several studies that show that the crime rate bears only a glancing relationship with how many people we put in jail. As the civil rights advocate and legal scholar Michelle Alexander has said, “It’s not crime that makes us more punitive in the United States. It’s the way we respond to crime and how we view those people who have been labeled criminals.”
The goal of the DVSJA is to extend more judicial humanity to abuse victims, allowing judges to consider how that abuse affected criminalized actions. Addimando’s case will be a test of its effectiveness.
*This post has been updated to clarify the resentencing standards of the DVSJA.