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Nikki Addimando case puts spotlight on criminal justice for victims of domestic violence

Cases like that of Nikki Addimando, who was convicted of murdering her boyfriend, have come under scrutiny from domestic violence advocates who say survivors of domestic violence and intimate partner violence are sometimes criminalized for actions they take in order to defend their lives.

In an interview with “20/20,” Kellyann Kostyal-Larrier the executive director at Fearless! Hudson Valley, a nonprofit that advocates for domestic abuse victims said that in Nikki Addimando’s trial, "There was lots of focus on the night of the incident and very little focus on how we got there."

PHOTO: Nicole Addimando is escorted out of Judge Edward McLoughlin's court room on Feb. 11, 2020. (Patrick Oehler/Poughkeepsie Journal via USA Today Network, FILE)
PHOTO: Nicole Addimando is escorted out of Judge Edward McLoughlin's court room on Feb. 11, 2020. (Patrick Oehler/Poughkeepsie Journal via USA Today Network, FILE)

Kostyal-Larrier said that after seeing the evidence in the case, including graphic photographs of injuries on Nikki’s body taken by a forensic nurse, "I thought to myself, 'If [Ms.] Addimando was not seen as a victim, then who could be seen as a victim?'"

MORE: Video Why Nikki Addimando said she testified in her 2019 trial

Addimando's conviction and initial sentencing sparked outrage from her supporters and domestic violence advocacy groups who say both the criminal and civil justice systems are not necessarily constructed for victims.

"The No. 1 question that I am asked all the time [is], 'Why don't they just leave?' It is an extremely simplistic and really archaic look at domestic violence," Kostyal-Larrier said.

Garrard Beeney, Addimando's appellate attorney, told "20/20" that "Nikki's case encapsulates everything that's wrong about the way society addresses survivors of domestic violence and certainly with the way we treat them in the criminal justice system."

Justine van der Leun, from the podcast “Believe Her” has been researching criminal survivors for years, and told "20/20," “I started looking into Nikki's case, I was curious if this was a one-off or if it was something that was happening all the time. So I started to write into the prisons.”

One of the women van der Leun learned about was Tanisha Williams, who is serving a 30-year sentence for a crime she says she was forced to commit by her abuser who held a gun to her head. Tanisha, like many other women who identify as criminalized survivors, has a clemency petition filed and is awaiting a response.

PHOTO: Nicole Addimando appears on the witness stand during her murder trial in the courtroom of Hon. Edward McLoughlin on March 25, 2019. (Patrick Oehler/Poughkeepsie Journal via USA Today Network, FILE)
PHOTO: Nicole Addimando appears on the witness stand during her murder trial in the courtroom of Hon. Edward McLoughlin on March 25, 2019. (Patrick Oehler/Poughkeepsie Journal via USA Today Network, FILE)

Reforms have been implemented in some locations, including New York State, where Addimando was convicted and sentenced.

In 2019, the state instituted the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, which gave judges more discretion in sentencing crimes involving domestic violence survivors if the abuse was a significant contributing factor to the defendant's criminal behavior.

MORE: Nikki Addimando speaks out from prison and shares her story

Oklahoma state leaders are looking to pass a similar bill in their legislature.

Still, advocates and attorneys argue that the system for helping domestic violence victims and prosecuting them for violent crimes that stem from that abuse still needs work.

"We need to understand that it is quite possible the person holding the gun is far more afraid than the person not holding the gun and that matters," Kostyal-Larrier said. "That danger, risk and lethality are always imminent for a victim."

Addimando’s supporters have continued to advocate for both Nikki and other survivors around the country who they say are facing prosecution for defending themselves against their abusers.

Nikki Addimando case puts spotlight on criminal justice for victims of domestic violence originally appeared on abcnews.go.com