New York Appellate Court issues landmark ruling on DVSJA in the case of Nicole Addimando

On July 14, 2021, Sanctuary for Families and the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative were

On July 14, 2021, Sanctuary for Families and the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative were part of a legal team that achieved a remarkable, ground-breaking result for domestic violence survivors in New York State. On that day, a New York appellate court dramatically reduced the sentence of defendant Nicole Addimando—by more than a decade—because she had demonstrated that her crime was directly related to the severe abuse she had suffered for years at the hands of her domestic partner. For the first time, an appellate court applied New York’s revolutionary Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act to ensure that a survivor’s experiences were credited and that she received a compassionate sentence in line with a modern understanding of the effects of prolonged abuse.

The Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative

What does it take to change systems that have historically been stacked against survivors of abuse, particularly women of color? The answer to this question was the foundation of our Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative. Formed in 2017 by Sanctuary attorneys and pro bono partners, the Initiative seeks to secure the release of gender violence survivors who have been imprisoned in New York State for crimes committed as a result of domestic abuse, through a comprehensive approach: legislation, legal representation, training, and education. 

In 2019, the Initiative, along with survivors and advocates across New York, achieved a major success when New York enacted the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (“DVSJA”) after nearly a decade of hard-fought advocacy.

The DVSJA affords judges the discretion to impose reduced sentences if a defendant was “a victim of domestic violence subjected to substantial physical, sexual or psychological abuse inflicted by a member of the same family or household,” the abuse was “a significant contributing factor” to the crime, and, taking all of the circumstances into account, a standard sentence would be “unduly harsh.” The DVSJA allows defendants to seek a reduced sentence after conviction, and it also allows defendants who were sentenced before the DVSJA’s enactment the opportunity to apply for re-sentencing. 

In New York, the passage of the DVSJA was hailed as a major victory by advocates of criminal justice reform and the movement to end gender violence. To be effective, however, laws must be applied. Since 2019, Initiative members have worked to educate practitioners and courts on the DVSJA, but until the Nicole Addimando case, there was no clear legal precedent on how it should be properly applied. 

Nicole Addimando

Nicole Addimando is the proud mother of two young children who was living in Poughkeepsie, NY. At the age of 19, she began dating the father of her children. Throughout their 9-year relationship, Nicole’s partner became increasingly abusive, including sadistic sexual and physical violence, threats, and psychological and emotional manipulation. One night in 2017, he brandished a gun and threatened to kill both Nicole and himself, leaving their children to grow up parent-less. That night, Nicole used the gun to kill him.

In April 2020, following a jury trial, Nicole was convicted of second-degree murder and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. Despite detailed testimony and evidence outlining one of the most extreme histories of abuse we at Sanctuary and many others in the field have seen, the trial judge ruled that the DVSJA should not apply in her case, and she should not receive a reduced sentence. Using a badly outdated understanding of the effects of prolonged domestic abuse, the judge concluded, among other things, that the history of abuse was somehow unclear, and that Nicole could have easily and safely escaped from her abusive home and relationship. Nicole was shockingly given a prison term of 19 years to life.

For advocates in New York State and across the country, the sentencing decision was disheartening. Nicole Addimando was precisely the kind of survivor for whom the DVSJA was written and enacted.

The Appeal

Sanctuary Board Member and Sullivan & Cromwell partner Garrard Beeney took on the massive undertaking of filing an appeal on Nicole’s behalf. He and his team moved quickly, forming a powerful coalition including, among others, Sanctuary, The Legal Aid Society, and Nicole’s trial attorneys, to challenge both the conviction and the judge’s failure to apply the DVSJA at sentencing.

One of the roles Sanctuary took on was to coordinate the filing of amicus briefs (supplemental legal briefs submitted by third parties to provide judges with additional background or information on the potential impacts of a decision). The trial judge’s decision reflected deeply flawed understandings of the dynamics of abuse, the impact on survivors’ memories, the risk assessment survivors make when determining life or death situations, and the application of the DVSJA — views that unfortunately pervade our justice system.

First, a team of deeply trauma-informed attorneys at the firm of Davis Polk drafted an amicus brief about the impact of trauma on survivors’ memories and the way trauma informs survivors’ decisions, to be filed on behalf of a group of domestic violence service providers. Second, a devoted team of attorneys at the firm of Duane Morris drafted a highly insightful amicus brief detailing the legislative history of the DVSJA and its intended application, to be filed on behalf of the very New York State legislators who drafted and passed the statute.  

On April 22, 2021, Garrard Beeney argued the case before a panel of four judges from the Appellate Division – Second Department.  Oral argument lasted approximately two hours and can be viewed here. 

On July 14, 2021, the appellate court issued its decision. Much to the disappointment of Nicole, her legal team, family, and friends, the judges upheld Nicole’s conviction. In a blistering rebuke of the trial court’s sentencing, however, the appellate court held that the trial judge misinterpreted the legislative intent of the DVSJA and the circumstances of the case. Though not overturned as we hoped, Nicole Addimando’s sentence was reduced from 19 years to life to a term of 7 ½ years. The full decision can be viewed here.

The Silver Lining: A Precedent for New York

As the first DVSJA decision to be issued by a New York appellate court, the Nicole Addimando decision is precedent-setting and should pave the way for more compassionate treatment for survivors throughout the state.

First, after reviewing the record, the court held that “through her lengthy testimony, photographs, and other evidence,” Nicole had shown that her domestic partner had “repeatedly abused her physically and sexually.” Second, the court held that the evidence, “which included a detailed history of repeated sexual, physical, and psychological abuse … expert testimony regarding the impact of that abuse on the defendant, and the defendant’s testimony regarding the events prior to the subject shooting, established that the abuse was a significant contributing factor to the defendant’s criminal behavior.” Third, the court held that in determining a sentence, the trial court “failed to fully take into account the impact of physical, sexual, and/or psychological abuse on the defendant as a domestic violence survivor.”  The court concluded that “[t]his approach simply runs afoul of the spirit and intent of the statute. It is unacceptable that, in reflecting the views of a more enlightened society, the Legislature saw fit to enact the DV Survivor’s Act, only to have the court frustrate that legislative intent by applying outdated notions regarding domestic violence issues.”

The court’s decision adopted the arguments made by the Sullivan & Cromwell team in its briefs and Garrard’s oral argument, as well as the arguments in the amicus briefs submitted by Davis Polk and Duane Morris. In sum, the decision in Nicole Addimando’s case, beyond reducing her sentence dramatically, should have a profound impact on how prosecutors and courts apply the DVSJA, and how the criminal justice system views and treats survivors moving forward. 

New York Leads the Way

As the United States reckons with the ways racism, misogyny, and poverty have fueled mass incarceration and the incarceration of abuse survivors, New York is setting an example that other states will hopefully choose to follow. The passage of the DVSJA and the correct application in Nicole’s case, sets a high bar for the compassionate treatment of survivors in the criminal justice system.

But our work is far from over. The appellate court’s decision not to overturn Nicole’s conviction reflects the need for continued education and advocacy from experts in gender-based violence. Survivors should not be criminalized, incarcerated, and separated from their children for the years of abuse they experience and what they must do in order to protect or free themselves.

Thanks to the advocacy and training by Initiative members, our outstanding pro bono partners, and advocates across New York, however, abuse survivors have a beacon of hope for the future.

The Vicente Foundation and Marquis Studios Bring Impactful Arts Program to Survivors

Thanks to The Vicente Foundation and Marquis Studios, Sanctuary has been able to offer families new and fun opportunities for creativity and family bonding despite the unprecedented challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Art has always been an essential tool for promoting healing and facilitating bonding within families who are recovering from abuse. Artistic expression fosters a sense of well-being and comfort in the midst of uncertainty and offers an alternative form of communication. For survivors processing feelings of isolation, depression, and fear during COVID-19, having access to the full range of therapy, including art therapy, has been more important than ever. Thanks to a partnership with Marquis Studios, Sanctuary has been able to offer these crucial services to families virtually.

Founded in 1977, Marquis Studios’ staff of skilled teaching artists provides a full spectrum of arts experiences to 40,000 participants each year, including education services in more than 170 New York City public schools. These programs are designed to integrate culturally responsive arts activities with instruction in academic or social and emotional subjects. Marquis Studios’ planning process is individualized for each residency, offered in-person or remotely, with teaching artists, teachers, and other facilitators meeting to discuss goals prior to session planning. Marquis’ program with Sanctuary likewise offers tailored instruction to best meet the needs of Sanctuary clients.

The Sanctuary and Marquis partnership consists of 10 virtual workshops that began in October and run through December. Each workshop caters to 10 families with young children and focuses on a different artistic skill or activity. The visual and performing arts disciplines covered in the sessions include paper collage, drawing, painting, bookmaking, paper sculpture, puppetry, mixed visual arts, hip hop dance, and African dance.

Reflecting on the workshops she observed, Kimberly Roman, Sanctuary’s children & family services program coordinator, shared,

“Marquis Studios has provided families with fun ways to engage with each other and express themselves. Participants encourage and celebrate each other and the facilitator is also very kind and engaging. Every week the activities are new, interesting and appropriately challenging.”

Sanctuary’s partnership with Marquis Studios was made possible by a donation from The Harriet and Esteban Vicente Foundation. Jennifer Stein of the Vicente Foundation notes,

“The Harriet and Esteban Vicente Foundation is proud to support the groundbreaking art education program run by Marquis Studios for Sanctuary for Families. It is our belief that art brings joy and healing.”

Thanks to The Vicente Foundation and Marquis Studios, Sanctuary has been able to offer families new and fun opportunities for creativity and family bonding despite the unprecedented challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Sanctuary Announces New Co-Chair of the Pro Bono Council

Sanctuary for Families’ PBC is excited to announce that, as of December 2020, Victoria Abraham, associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, is serving as PBC Co-Chair.

Sanctuary for Families’ PBC is excited to announce that, as of December 2020, Victoria Abraham, associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP,  is serving as PBC Co-Chair along with Sharon Barbour, associate at Cohen & Gresser, LLP, who has served as PBC Co-Chair since January 2019.

Victoria succeeds Louisa Irving, who served as Co-Chair of the PBC from January 2018 to October 2020.  We are very grateful for Louisa’s outstanding dedication and leadership over the past two years.

About the PBC

The PBC was formed in 2003 as the Associate’s Committee, later changed to the Pro Bono Council and currently known as the PBC, with the goal of bringing together young professionals committed to supporting and promoting the work of Sanctuary through active community engagement, pro bono projects, and client-centered events. The PBC currently has approximately 25 active members. Each fall, the PBC hosts the Above and Beyond benefit, an event that supports the Legal Center by honoring the pro bono lawyers and other volunteers who have worked on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients during the past year. This year’s Above & Beyond event raised over $200,000 in support of the Legal Center.

Introducing Victoria

Victoria has been passionate about gender equality and gender-based violence since college. She first learned about Sanctuary while at Harvard Law School during a class on sex equality taught by feminist scholar and activist Catharine MacKinnon. After graduating and joining Skadden as an associate in the Mergers and Acquisitions group, she connected with Sanctuary and became part of the PBC in 2016.

Victoria studied journalism and Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada and it was her experiences working at a radio station in Gulu, Uganda after graduating that inspired her to pursue a law degree.

“Working and living in Uganda made me realize that I wanted to have a more substantive understanding of how the law shapes society,” she recounts. “In my reporting, I came across situations where it seemed like Ugandan women and girls seemed to not be able to enjoy the same rights of citizenship as Ugandan men and the law seemed essential for understanding why that was the case.” Through her work at the radio station reporting on various aspects of life in Gulu, Uganda, Victoria realized that she was not satisfied with only telling someone’s story but that she also wanted to have tangible, lasting positive impacts on people’s lives. Her experience in Gulu inspired Victoria to spend her 1L summer at the Women’s Legal Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, where she had the opportunity to work on a class action case on the denial of Anti-Retroviral treatment to women working in the sex industry.

She has continued to passionately pursue this goal through her pro bono work, where her focus is predominantly on immigration matters. Her fluency in Russian enables her to work with LGBTQ asylum seekers and Violence Against Women Act clients from Russia and former Soviet Union countries.

“Working with pro bono clients is very rewarding because you get to help an extremely strong person who has gone through a lot. It’s so rewarding to build relationships with clients and give them a chance to make their life what they want it to be.” — Victoria.

Victoria also brings new insight to her pro bono work through her background in journalism, as demonstrated by her empathetic approach to interviewing clients and crafting compelling stories that are true to their experiences.

An active member of the PBC, Victoria served as Co-chair of the Above and Beyond Gala for the past two years and is eager to take on this new leadership role. Her goals for her time as PBC Co-chair include positioning the PBC as an anti-racist arm of Sanctuary and increasing the council’s diversity. She also hopes to increase membership engagement across the board. Ultimately, she wants the PBC to be a vibrant, constructive community that showcases all of Sanctuary’s invaluable work.

Please join us in welcoming Victoria as PBC Co-chair!

Latham & Watkins Attorneys Obtain Unconditional Permanent Residency for Survivor

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a dedicated team of attorneys from Latham & Watkins LLP for their culturally sensitive and compassionate pro bono representation of  “Anam”, a survivor whom they helped to obtain unconditional permanent residency in the United States.

Amy Abramson is a former Sanctuary staff member and current Senior Development Director at AJC. She is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a dedicated team of attorneys from Latham & Watkins LLP for their culturally sensitive and compassionate pro bono representation of  “Anam”, a survivor whom they helped to obtain unconditional permanent residency in the United States.

Anam was an independent young woman living in Pakistan. Shortly after graduating from college, her parents arranged her marriage to a local young man who was the son of a family friend. The couple moved to the United States and Anam, full of dreams, started making plans to build a family and continue her education. Very soon though, she discovered that her husband had different plans.

Anam’s husband forced her to stay in the house, forbade her to call her family and friends, and perpetrated incredible physical violence against her. After seeking help for her injuries due to his abuse, the local District Attorney opened a criminal investigation. Anam found shelter at the home of local distant relatives, but her husband tracked her down and blackmailed her into returning to his house by threatening her widowed, elderly mother living alone in Pakistan.

With local police making regular visits due to the DA’s open case, her husband’s family recognized that Anam could not stay in the U.S. They kidnapped her, made her travel back to Pakistan, and kept her locked up in a relative’s compound under around-the-clock surveillance. Months later, Anam escaped, and with the help of the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, she returned to New York City.

The Latham & Watkins pro bono team consisting of Loren N. Finegold, Irina Y. Sivachenko, Sohom Datta, Omar R. Jooma, Abhinaya Swaminathan, and Danielle E. Sekerak showed great compassion and support for Anam from their first meeting together. Due to the deep trauma she had endured, Anam found it hard to trust others with her story and found that certain cultural aspects of her experience were difficult for her to talk about with a mixed-gender team. Because of this, Sohom thoughtfully stepped out of the room during their early meetings, ensuring a female-only environment, and the team spoke with her in her native Urdu as necessary to make Anam more comfortable.

The Latham & Watkins team worked on the case for nearly three years, from June 2017 until they received the decision in May 2020. In that time, they researched cultural matrimonial practices in Pakistan to produce a detailed memorandum, compiled the petition, and included a supporting affidavit from an interview conducted in Urdu with a Pakistani contact. Anam was anxious at points throughout the case that her husband would try to interfere, even physically, to prevent her from achieving legal status. The pro bono team continuously monitored Anam’s well-being and assisted whenever she felt she was being followed or at risk of another kidnapping.

Anam’s resilience is astounding. While the Latham & Watkins team was working on her case, she completed another degree at a local community college and is now gainfully employed as an IT professional. Seeing Anam’s determination over the years, from the day she walked in the door as an intelligent, educated, yet deeply traumatized young woman to seeing her grow, make friends, build a life and further her education was incredible for the Latham & Watkins team. The team is deeply proud of this case and continues working with Anam on her citizenship application.

On the pro bono team, Anam says:

“I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to you for all the care and concern you have shown me, and for working tirelessly to ensure that the immigration law worked in our favor… I feel lucky to work with Latham & Watkins LLP, each and every person I work with.” — Anam.

This case was a true partnership between Sanctuary for Families and the Latham & Watkins team.

Join us at our virtual Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the outstanding pro bono work of Loren, Irina, Sohom, Omar, Abhinaya, and Danielle. Click here to RSVP for free.

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.