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Lexi Santoro / Gavel Media

Empathy Over Victimization: How the Justice System Neglects Abuse Survivors

Victims of domestic abuse have long been the target of stigma––and often outright hatred––for retaliating against their abusers. In some states, steps are being taken to address this injustice; for instance, the implementation of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA), which was signed into New York law last May. The extreme sentencing of domestic violence survivors is still a pervasive issue, as revealed by the case of Nicole (“Nikki”) Addimando.

Nikki Addimando is known by many as a kind, gentle, and loving person, who would do anything for her kids and anyone else in her life. Testimonies from her supporters, friends, and colleagues confirm her character. Zoe Whalen, MCAS ‘23, gained special insight into Nikki’s personality through their long-standing relationship with each other.

“Nikki was my gymnastics coach beginning when I was 3 or 4, and when she and my mom became closer she started bringing me home from practice and watching me,” Zoe remembers. “She made my mom photo albums for her birthdays [Nikki was a photographer] and surprised her with them because that’s simply the relationship they have… she came to all of my shows and all of my brother’s games.”

According to an article published last December in The New Yorker, Nikki’s relationship with Christopher Grover started off well. She trusted him, even saw him as her best friend, and he was respectful of her desire not to have a sexual relationship for about a year. Once they started having sex, however, Grover began citing his “needs” as an excuse to ignore Nikki when she asked him to stop. Eventually, these rationalizations led Grover to perpetrate physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

As time went on, Grover continued to hurt Nikki in increasingly horrifying ways. Once, she spoke sarcastically to him, and his response was to heat a metal spoon over a gas stove and assault her with it. At one point, Nikki’s midwife, Susan Rannestad, was unable to complete an examination because of the extreme swelling around her genital areas—caused by Grover’s continued rapes and beatings of her. 

As Nikki’s relationship with Grover progressed, those close to her began to notice the signs of his abuse. “Everything was quieter,” Zoe explained. “I very vividly remember seeing bruises on her neck and thigh and asking her what happened… she said she had burned herself with a curling iron and then dropped it on herself. She just never wanted anyone to feel a burden as a result of what was happening to her and she became a lot more timid.” 

Throughout the entire relationship, Nikki felt that she could not leave for fear of death and losing custody of her children (at the end of her relationship with Grover, they were four and two years old). This fear wasn’t just hers, either—at one point, Family Services worker Sarah Caprioli conducted a risk assessment for Nikki and placed her in the highest-risk category for homicide.

Nikki shot Grover out of self-defense on September 27, 2017, and was subsequently charged with second-degree murder, first and second-degree manslaughter, and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

A particularly important caveat to the self-defense argument is that the defendant must have been in imminent danger before defending themselves. Nikki testified that immediately before shooting Grover, he had threatened to kill her, her children, and himself. Without any factual basis, the prosecution argued that Grover was asleep at the time of the shooting, discounting Nikki’s claim of self-defense. 

At trial, the prosecution conceded that she had suffered a great deal of abuse, but doubt rose as to who had inflicted it. Nikki never implicated anyone besides Grover in her testimony. One prosecutor offered that she had harmed herself, ignoring all evidence to the contrary, such as medical documents detailing injuries that were impossible to self-inflict. The reliance of the prosecution on arguments designed to poke holes in the defense indicates the severity of her abuse—it is impossible to deny the suffering she underwent as a result of her relationship with Grover. 

Based on Grover’s proven history of threatening behavior, as well as Google searches from his phone earlier in the day asking if police could tell if “ahe [sic] was asleep when I shoot her,” Nikki’s narrative makes the most sense. However, despite the gendered pronouns clearly applying to Nikki (demonstrating that Grover was searching on his own phone) and the fact that she had her own phone at the time, the prosecution argued that Nikki took the incredibly dangerous action of stealing Grover’s phone to enter these searches. This logic arguably amounts to conjecture designed to persuade the jury to convict her—and regrettably, it was successful. 

Despite the overwhelming evidence of her long-time abuse and imminent danger from Grover, a jury convicted Nikki of second-degree murder and criminal possession of a firearm in April 2019. That September, her attorneys filed for an appeal for her case to be considered under the aforementioned DVSJA, which allows judges to use their discretion in offering reduced sentences for victims convicted for offenses relating to their abuse. For many, Nikki represents the exact profile of people the law is supposed to protect—her application was supplemented by over 40 endorsements from various organizations and activists.

According to a press release from New York State, the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA) exists to prevent “further victimization of individuals who have endured domestic and sexual violence at the hands of their abusers.” Given the extensive evidence presented during Nikki’s trial, it is difficult to say why this law would not have applied. In the writer’s opinion, the male judge was unable to imagine the powerlessness and fear that victims of abuse often feel, and this bias informed his decision to deny Nikki’s application. 

In the background of this decision arises an important question: if the DVSJA doesn’t apply to Nikki’s case, to which cases will it apply? A website dedicated to raising awareness for Nikki and all other criminalized survivors explains that Nikki’s situation was unique in that it was more public than most abuse cases. 

Among examples provided were the fact that Grover uploaded multiple videos of his abuse to the Internet, dozens of witnesses saw Nikki’s injuries (which were backed up by medical documentation), and “renowned forensic psychologist Dr. Dawn Hughes testified that Nikki was in the highest level of lethality at home.” If the bar for the DVSJA to be called upon is this high––asking for even more evidence of abuse––it is unlikely that judges will frequently consider employing it to reduce a survivor’s sentencing. 

Nikki’s case has set a dangerous precedent. Just when society has finally begun to believe survivors, the trial and sentencing of Nikki stands as an ugly reminder of how far we have yet to come before true justice can be achieved for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

This testimonial statement from Nikki sheds light on the tragedy of her situation, and that of so many other abused individuals: "I wish more than anything it ended another way. I wouldn't be in this courtroom right now, but I wouldn't be alive either. This is why women don't leave. They so often end up dead or where I'm standing—alive, but not free." We stand with Nikki. 

To help make a difference in Nikki’s life (and by extension, the lives of other domestic abuse victims) you can sign this petition, donate to help cover her legal fees, and continue to raise awareness of the ongoing need to support victims. If you or someone you know is suffering from any form of abuse and in need of help, you can contact University Health Services at 617-552-3310, the BC Sexual Assault Network (SANet) Hotline at 617-552-2211, or the BC SANet Care Team at 617-552-8099. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-7233.

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