A Failing Justice System Gives no Peace of Mind to Abuse Survivors

For those who survive abuse, the criminal justice system serves as the next abusive entity in their lives.

In Sept. of 2017, Poughkeepsie woman Nicole Addimando was found guilty of second-degree murder. She had shot her then-boyfriend in the head, allegedly while he was asleep. While on trial, photos of Addimando, bruised and beaten, appeared on screens in the courtroom. After surviving years of domestic violence and abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, Addimando claimed that the murder was committed out of self-defense. Still, she received the maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.  

While Addimando was sentenced and tried for this crime in 2017, she and her team hope to appeal her conviction under a new act signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act” (DVSJA) was signed on May 14, 2019, amending both the penal and criminal procedure law for sentencing and resentencing in domestic violence cases.

In the 2019 Women’s Justice Agenda, Cuomo states that “this new law will allow judges to reduce prison sentences and redirect sentencing from incarceration to community-based programs, and also permits a small population of currently incarcerated survivors to apply for re-sentencing and earlier release due to their prior victimization.”

For Addimando, this could mean 10 years less on her sentence, and a monumental move towards ending and preventing domestic violence. Her 25-to-life sentence could be reduced to five to 15 years. This act has the potential to protect all people who suffer intimate partner abuse, and Addimando’s appeal could be a pivotal point in helping women be taken seriously and believed in a system that is actively pitted against them. 

We at The New Paltz Oracle commend Gov. Cuomo for signing in this new legislature, and we believe this is a groundbreaking step in the right direction. We believe it is imperative to the fight against violence, to believe survivors and take active steps towards changing the culture surrounding domestic violence.

For those who survive abuse, the criminal justice system serves as the next abusive entity in their lives. Instead of offering protection, compassion and healing, we have a system that uses the same tactics as an abuser—aggressive character assassinations and coercion, monitoring of movement and phone calls, shackling and invasive strip searches and creating an environment of punishment and fear. As we know, many are re-traumatized and victimized by police or prison guards, including acts of verbal abuse and sexual violence.

Cyntoia Brown is one example of how the justice system often fails survivors. This young woman testified that she was solicited for sex by 43-year-old Johnny Mitchell Allan after being sold to him by a pimp. At Allan’s house, she said she saw a gun cabinet in his room. She said she resisted his advances until he appeared to reach under the bed. Brown thought he was “gonna get a gun or is gonna do something to me.” In that moment, she took a gun out of her purse and shot him.

The prosecution in this case argued that the motive for the killing was robbery, not self-defense, as Brown claimed, because Brown took Allan’s wallet after she shot him. She was tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder, first degree felony murder and aggravated robbery. The convictions carried concurrent life sentences and eight additional years.

While Brown would not be considered a survivor of domestic violence, she is yet another young woman who the system worked against, denied and disbelieved. Survivors are not believed, even in a post #MeToo world, and the justice institutions in our country do not have the vocabulary or understanding of survivors to protect them under the law. 

We at the Oracle acknowledge that the justice system has consistently been unfair to survivors of domestic violence, and more change like the DVSJA needs to be made in order for there to be a fair system that protects survivors and ensures due process in trial. 

When it comes to Addimando, a woman who outlined a history of sexual and physical abuse in her life, starting at the age of seven, the justice system does not stay sensitive to her circumstances. Addimando’s attorneys at the Dutchess County Public Defender’s Office tried to fight for a self-defense justification, coupled with testimony on battered woman syndrome in order to protect her from such heavy sentencing. However, battered woman syndrome, which is defined as “a series of common characteristics found in women who are abused both physically and emotionally by the dominant male figures in their lives over a prolonged period of time” does not constitute a valid legal defense in its own right. This syndrome can, however, be used to show the reasonableness of a woman’s belief that she was in imminent danger of physical force when she perpetrated the crime.        

How long are women supposed to wait to protect themselves until it’s too late? During Addimando’s three-week trial, forensic psychologists Dawn Hughes (defense) and Stuart Kirschener (prosecution) both the state’s and defense’s experts, agreed Addimando had suffered physical injuries and had been beaten. Former therapists of Addimando, as well as a former landlord, all testified to seeing the signs of abuse on her body.

Various people confirmed that they knew she was being abused, yet she did not have enough resources available to protect her and her children in order to leave her abuser. Instead, as things spiraled out of control, Addimando felt compelled to commit murder in order to escape this situation. Getting and receiving help for domestic violence is not as easy as calling a hotline; it is a psychological torture plaguing survivors that our country and criminal institutions are not equipped to handle. While those around us may be able to see abuse, there are not enough resources available to aid and protect individuals from getting out of these situations in an efficient, accessible way. 

We believe there is a long way to go before survivors of domestic violence are truly treated with fairness in the justice system. We need more legislation that helps survivors before they are pushed to such a desperate place. Women and survivors need to be believed, their testimonies must be centered and a safer space must be created through laws and conversation for those who are brave enough to come forward.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month, and yet the subject still remains an uncomfortable and taboo topic in our culture. This has caused a ripple effect in our legislature and how we uphold justice. Setting a new precedent through this court case gives us the opportunity to rewrite our cultural ideals surrounding survivors.