Justice Denied For A NY Domestic Violence Survivor

By Ross Kramer and Nicole Fidler | February 23, 2020, 8:02 PM EST

Ross Kramer
Ross Kramer
Nicole Fidler
Nicole Fidler
On Feb. 11, Nicole Addimando, a survivor of severe, long-term domestic violence, was given a sentence of 19 years to life in prison by a court in Dutchess County, New York. She should have received a substantially less severe sentence under New York’s recently enacted Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, or DVSJA, because her offense was directly related to the years of sadistic abuse and trauma she suffered at the hands of her domestic partner — precisely the type of scenario the New York Legislature had in mind when passing the DVSJA.

Addimando was convicted on April 12, 2019, of killing her domestic partner. At her trial, she argued that her actions were justified because she had suffered through years of physical and sexual violence at the hands of her partner and others. She provided credible, emotional testimony about those years of abuse. This included testimony about forced sex, violent beatings, being left bound and tied up, rape with a bottle, and repeated burning around her vaginal area with a heated spoon while her partner held her down on the floor.

It also included testimony about having explicit photos and videos taken of her by her partner, which were then uploaded to a pornographic website. And she testified that on that April night, her partner had threatened to kill her with his gun. Witnesses testified that they observed wounds and bruises on Nicole’s face and body, including her genitals, and Nicole’s attempts to cover them up. Despite all of this evidence, the court rejected Addimando’s efforts to be sentenced under the less severe guidelines set forth in the DVSJA.

The DVSJA was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on May 14, 2019. It gives sentencing judges the ability to impose a lower sentence on a criminal offender who, at the time of the offense, was a victim of domestic violence subjected to substantial physical, sexual or psychological abuse inflicted by a member of the same family or household, when such abuse was a “significant contributing factor” in the offense.

The DVSJA was enacted to protect domestic violence survivors just like Addimando. Unfortunately, the Dutchess County court rejected her efforts to be sentenced under the DVSJA. As a result, her sentence of 19 years to life fails to recognize and account for the lifetime of abuse she survived — abuse that caused substantial trauma, and that was directly connected to the offense for which she was convicted.

The court’s failure to apply the DVSJA may have resulted, in large part, from the court’s unfamiliarity with the impact and dynamics of domestic violence, as well as some of the most significant psychological effects that manifest in a person subjected to intimate partner violence and other forms of severe abuse.

For example, in denying her motion to be sentenced under the DVSJA, the court emphasized Addimando’s purported “opportunities to escape” her abusive partner. Clearly, the court failed to account for the powerful effects of traumatic bonding, where a person suffering abuse forms a strong emotional attachment with their abuser, making it difficult, if not impossible, to leave the relationship no matter how serious the abuse. The court likewise failed to recognize that the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence is immediately after attempting to leave their abuser, and that the fear of increased abuse or even death often prevents any attempt at escape.

The court further claimed that Addimando’s recounting of her history of abuse was at times inconsistent. Again, even assuming inconsistencies, the court failed to account for the effects of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which often develops as a result of prolonged, repeated domestic abuse.

Complex PTSD can cause variations in recollection of traumatic events, as well as self-blame, idealization of one’s abuser and minimization of the abuse as a coping mechanism. Familiarity with the effects of complex PTSD gives essential context to any perceived inconsistency in Addimando’s reporting of her years of severe, repeated abuse.

Under the DVSJA, Addimando would have been sentenced to five to 15 years in prison, rather than life with a possibility of parole after 19 years of incarceration. A sentence under the DVSJA would have provided a measure of appropriate understanding and leniency to a survivor of severe domestic abuse, in a case where such abuse was a contributing factor in the offense.

This is precisely how the DVSJA was meant to be applied, and Nicole Addimando is precisely the type of survivor who should have been sentenced under the DVSJA. Indeed, given the extensive, credible evidence put forth at Nicole’s trial, it is fair to wonder: If the DSVJA does not apply to Nicole Addimando’s case, will it be applied at all?

Ross M. Kramer is the director of the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivor Initiative at Sanctuary for Families and a former partner at Winston & Strawn LLP

Nicole Fidler is the pro bono director at Sanctuary for Families.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors from the access to justice field. To pitch article ideas, email expertanalysis@law360.com. 

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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