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September 16, 2019

Noting efforts to apply reduced sentencing rules under New York's new Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act

This press release from May 2019 reports on the signing of New York's Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act and describes the law this way:

The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act ... codifies more meaningful sentence reductions for domestic abuse survivors in the criminal justice system and a key initiative in the Governor's 2019 Women's Justice Agenda.  Current law allows judges to administer indeterminate sentences for domestic violence survivors who have committed a crime only in relation to their abuser under certain circumstances.  The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act will build upon this law by adding offenses committed due to coercion by an abuser, as well as offenses committed against or at the behest of an abuser who does not share a household or family with the survivor — preventing further victimization of individuals who have endured domestic and sexual violence at the hands of their abusers.

But this New York Post piece, headlined "Mom found guilty of murdering boyfriend seeks lighter sentence under new law," reports on some of the challenges this law has presented in application:

In a matter of weeks, Poughkeepsie mom Nikki Addimando could become the first person in New York state to receive a lighter murder sentence under a new law that shields survivors of domestic abuse. In April, a jury found Addimando guilty of second-degree murder of 29-year-old Christopher Grover — her live-in boyfriend and the father of her two children.

She admitted shooting and killing Grover in September 2017, but said it was in self-defense after years of physical and sexual abuse. In her testimony, Addimando, 30, said Grover would use a hot metal spoon to burn her. Images of burns, lacerations and bruises on her body and face, some taken by medical staffers, were shown during the trial.

Addimando shot Grover in the head 24 hours after Child Protective Services visited their apartment, tipped off that Addimando had bruises on her body. The night of the shooting, Grover took out his gun and threatened to shoot her, telling her “he could kill me in my sleep,” she testified....

Under the new Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act — signed by Gov. Cuomo on May 14 — Addimando, who currently faces a maximum of 25 years to life in prison, could have her sentenced reduced to five to 15 years.

A three-day hearing to convince state Supreme Court Justice Edward McLoughlin that she was a domestic violence victim concluded Wednesday.  Addimando’s friends have created a We Stand With Nikki website which calls excessive punishment “unjust.”...

The judge will render a decision in November.  “In that decision, he will advise us whether he is sentencing under the act or if he deems a conventional sentence would not be unduly harsh,” said Addimando’s lawyer Benjamin Ostrer.  “Which is ultimately within the judge’s discretion.”

The new law looks at “the extent of the abuse, the degree of the abuse and you have to be able to establish that the abuse led to whatever act that was committed,” according to defense attorney Anthony Cillis, who has handled domestic violence cases.  According to Ostrer, “There’s very little guidance in the act to instruct either the litigants or the court concerning the burden of proof.”

The first defendant to attempt to use the new law failed.  Taylor Partlow, a 26-year-old Buffalo resident who was convicted of stabbing her boyfriend in the chest in 2018, sought a sentence reduction.

The judge decided that Partlow, despite witnesses who saw her boyfriend beating her and dragging her across the floor by her hair, did not qualify.  “The abuse, No. 1, was not substantial abuse and not a significant contributing factor to your behavior,” said state Supreme Court Justice Russell Buscaglia said at a Sept. 8 hearing.  “But I do agree there was domestic abuse.”

There are many interesting substantive elements to this New York DVSJA law providing for lower sentences for domestic violence survivors convicted of offenses related to their abuse.  But I am also intrigued by how the law procedurally seems to require (without any clear proof burden) that a judge must make certain findings in order to have authority to reduce a sentence.  Structured this way, this law seems to set out a structured mitigation sentence-reduction rule that evade the jury finding and proof requirement that Apprendi jurisprudence creates for aggravating sentence-enhnancing laws.

September 16, 2019 at 09:24 PM | Permalink

Comments

The idea that substantial abuse can be a mitigating factor in crimes committed against the abuser seems sensible. I'd prefer it to be based on questions put to the jury however.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Sep 18, 2019 5:02:34 AM

I agree with the comments that this question should be evaluated by a jury and not a judge. Like with other defenses, like insanity and self-defense, domestic violence victim should be difficult to prove so that it is not over used. If not carefully monitored, the defense will be diluted and real victims will suffer. Allowing the jury to decide the question will bring integrity to the defense.

Posted by: Kate Toth | Sep 23, 2019 1:29:25 PM

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