A New Path for Survivors of Domestic Violence 

August 19, 2021

S&C obtains two landmark rulings under a recent law

In landmark cases, S&C helped two survivors of domestic violence receive reduced sentences under New York’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA). Pro bono teams on both cases obtained rulings that will favorably impact how courts apply the DVSJA in cases involving survivors of domestic violence.
The New York State legislature passed the DVSJA in 2019 to allow domestic violence survivors to apply for reduced sentences that take into account three enumerated factors relevant to the abuse they have suffered. The act is among the few laws in the country that grant judges discretion to consider the impact of domestic violence on those convicted of committing crimes related to their abuse.
S&C helped Tanisha Davis become one of the first women released from prison under the DVSJA this March. Ms. Davis had no criminal history prior to killing her severely abusive partner. The S&C team assisted Ms. Davis with her appeal before the DVSJA was enacted and then with her resentencing in light of the DVSJA. Her pro bono team persuaded the trial judge to reduce Ms. Davis’ 14-year sentence by six years. As a result of time she had served, this reduced sentence allowed Ms. Davis to return home to her mother and 15-year-old son.
Nicole Addimando’s sentence was materially reduced in July, in the first appellate ruling interpreting the DVSJA. Noting that Ms. Addimando had no prior criminal history before killing her severely abusive partner, S&C persuaded the appeals court to reduce her sentence from 19 years-to-life to 7.5 years (reduced by time served so that Ms. Addimando will be released in less than three years). In a ruling that will influence how trial courts apply the DVSJA, the appellate court admonished the trial court for basing its findings on “antiquated impressions of how domestic violence survivors should behave.”
Litigation partner Nic Bourtin, who was a member of the team representing Tanisha Davis, says these rulings lay the groundwork for a more sophisticated approach to domestic violence cases. “The criminal justice system traditionally approaches the question of guilt in these cases in binary fashion—did you act in self-defense or was it murder? And where victims of domestic violence were not able to prove the elements of self-defense to a jury, courts would frequently sentence them harshly. The DVSJA allows courts to get out of that binary mindset and recognize mitigating factors even where a victim of domestic violence has not been successful in arguing self-defense.”
Reuters named the S&C team representing Ms. Davis its “Pro Bono Heroes” for March. The team representing Ms. Addimando will be awarded Sanctuary for Families’ “Above and Beyond” award, recognizing efforts that advance the safety, healing and self-determination of victims of domestic violence. In all, the two teams have dedicated more than 7,000 hours to these matters. The team representing Tanisha Davis included Steve Hsieh, and Madeline Jenks, with guidance from Nic Bourtin. The team representing Nicole Addimando included Garrard Beeney, Amanda Davidoff, Kamil Shields, and Tim Weinstein.
Learn more about our pro bono practice here.