Content Note: This article contains descriptions of domestic violence and abuse.
For the past three years, Denise Mann has eaten, slept, studied, prayed, and dreamed in Bedford Hills, the maximum security women’s prison in New York. Mann, who has asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity, is a mother of four and a survivor of domestic abuse who has applied for a repetitioning of her sentence under New York’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA), a piece of legislation that holds immense promise for incarcerated survivors and survivor-defendants. If accepted, Mann will be eligible for release this year, but New York court officials have been inconsistent and arbitrary in their use of the DVSJA, if they even consider applying it at all.
The DVSJA, signed in New York in 2019, allows for alternative or reduced sentencing for defendants whose offenses were connected to their experience with domestic or intimate partner violence. Currently, incarcerated survivors like Mann can also petition for a sentence reduction under the law. Mann is anxiously hopeful about her appeal for resentencing under the DSVJA. Her relationship with her children has been especially strained since her days on Rikers Island, where she was held for almost four years before her conviction.
“My children’s grandmother refused to bring them to come see me [at Rikers],” Mann wrote to Prism using the prison’s email system. “She said, ‘I wouldn’t bring my dog there. That broke me. Once I got [to Bedford Hills] our bond collapsed somehow.”
Mann’s energy has been split between maintaining her present health and sense of self through her writing, religious observance, and her studies through Marymount Manhattan College where she takes courses in business and Black studies. Her legal team says her case is the kind that the DVSJA is designed to address. However in October 2020, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz denied her motion to appeal, arguing there was insufficient evidence of Mann’s history of abuse.
In 2018, Mann was convicted of first-degree manslaughter of a man alleged to be the drug dealer of her then-boyfriend in 2013. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison along with five years of post-release supervision. She said her partner abused her physically, sexually, and emotionally, and because she feared him he was able to compel her to participate in the murder of the victim. After the crime, the couple left for New Jersey where Mann continued to endure her boyfriend’s abuse. According to court documents, her then-boyfriend and co-defendant “beat her, stabbed her in the face, and choked her” in the days following the murder. She eventually fled and reported the crime to New York police, detailing the abuse she had endured.
According to the DA’s office, Mann’s DVSJA case relied too heavily on her own report, which the office described as “self-serving” and the result of “circular reasoning” using Mann’s “own claims of abuse to corroborate her allegations of abuse.” The denial of Mann’s motion to appeal was based on the DA’s opinion that “the facts of the crime [that the] defendant committed do not support that such abuse was a significant ‘contributing factor.’”
Mann’s legal team as well as advocates for DVSJA say the DA’s opinion illustrates a broader and common failure of the courts to understand how domestic violence unfolds, how survivors respond, and the ongoing impact it has on their lives. Jonathan McCoy, the Legal Aid attorney representing Mann, pointed out how often survivors of domestic violence aren’t able to speak about what they’ve endured until after they’ve already been convicted of a crime and are incarcerated. Ironically, prison means that incarcerated survivors can separate from their abuser and take advantage of programs that allow them to process their trauma and reconcile their sense of self.
“A lot of domestic violence does not go reported immediately, if at all,” McCoy said. “When you hear prosecutors say that there’s insufficient corroborative evidence of the abuse because it’s all coming from our clients, that just strikes me as particularly insensitive to the realities of domestic violence.”
Ross Kramer, director of the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivor Initiative at Sanctuary for Families, a New York nonprofit that has adamantly supported DVSJA, describes the legislation as a “revolutionary act” that ideally compels courts to consider the fullness of defendants and their background.
“It attempts to encourage district attorney’s offices and courts to make more compassionate sentencing [or resentencing] decisions for domestic violence survivors, [taking] fully into account who these people are … what life experiences they had … and the profound effects that long-term serious domestic abuse can have on a person psychologically and how that relates and ties in to the single incident that investigators and prosecutors may be looking at,” Kramer said.
While the federal system requires judges to take into deep consideration the personal history of the defendant when making sentencing decisions, Kramer said that often does not occur within state court. The prevalence of plea deals and negotiated sentences make open sentencing rarer and can prevent judges from knowing the full extent of a defendant’s personal background.
According to Kramer, the legislation received enormous support from the New York legislature and since passage it has had a tremendous impact on those clients who have been successfully resentenced. Legal Aid currently has about 50 DVSJA cases on their docket, each at varying stages of the petitioning process. However, one of the more common arguments that often thwarts DVSJA petitions is rooted in yet another insensitivity towards the nature of domestic violence: that certain histories of abuse should not be weighed too heavily because the defendant could have left the abusive relationship. The recent case of Nikki Addimando, a survivor-defendant who recently had her DVSJA petition denied and has since garnered widespread support for an appeal, demonstrates this flawed logic in action.
“One of the things that came up in the Nikki Adimando case from the judge and comes up often in common lay thinking about this is, ‘Why didn’t she leave?’” Kramer said. Kramer points to the many studies and resources that talk about why victims of intimate partner violence don’t leave, such as children, financial dependence, and the emotional bonds that can be formed through trauma.
“It [also] becomes very, very risky to try to [leave] because a lot of times that attempt to leave is foiled and that becomes an even more dangerous situation once [the victims are] back in the home,” Kramer said.
Sanctuary for Families is among a handful of organizations supporting Addimando’s appeal. Kramer is hopeful that the appeal will not just positively impact Addimando’s chance at reduced sentencing, but will also make future DVSJA cases more successful. If an appellate court rules in favor of Addimando, it can help set a precedent and form the standard by which trial courts approach DVSJA cases.
While groups like Sanctuary for Families continue to work with DVSJA petitioners and spend time educating judges and prosecutors about the law and the importance of its implementation, the COVID pandemic has added an additional hurdle. For legal counsel, the halting of in person visits to prisons has meant that correspondence with incarcerated clients must occur over the phone which can be particularly difficult given the nature of their conversations and the personal information that clients must share.
“We’re trying to build relationships of trust with people who have extremely difficult backgrounds, based on phone calls,” said Kramer.
Even outside of the pandemic when counsel could meet with clients in person, those meetings must be approached sensitively. Lawyers at Legal Aid shared that they work alongside a team of social workers to ensure they are engaging with their clients using a trauma informed approach and that the process isn’t retraumatizing. Sometimes that means choosing to not have clients testify at their own DVSJA hearing due to the intensity and potentially adverse impact that could have on their mental health. Mann, for example, will not be testifying at her May hearing.
“I endeavour to keep my client informed and empowered throughout this process to kind of counteract the extreme abuse from her former partner and the level of powerlessness that one experiences [in] the criminal justice system,” McCoy said. “I think building that kind of relationship with one’s client and the DVSJA in context is very important because it builds trust, especially when things go on a bit longer than you would hope.”
As the weeks inch closer to her DVSJA hearing, which was originally scheduled for April but was pushed back to early May due to the pandemic, Mann finds herself trying to think less about it to control her anxiety. The hearing takes place the day after Ramadan—a surprising coincidence that Mann finds helpful and seems to be perhaps a Godsend.
“I’m happy that Ramadan started so that I am able to focus on my fasting instead of court because I have to make sure I’m careful of what I do to not break my fast throughout the day nor get angry,” Mann wrote.
Her mind is also focused on creative endeavors that have kept her afloat and which she hopes to build upon post-release. In addition to writing her third book, she’s focused on developing a nonprofit organization to keep children connected with their incarcerated parents. She talks often with her younger sister who is already making preparations for her to move to North Carolina and help her get back on her feet. If she’s granted early release, her first order of business is to share a deep hug with her mother—the person who has been one of her biggest supporters and who she describes as “my queen and my soldier.”
“I want to hug and kiss my children, see my dad and stepmom, rent a room and cleanse myself from smelling like this place, go to a spa, fix myself up (hair, nails, pedi) then go to a mosque and pray,” Mann wrote. “Then [I’ll be] ready for the beginning of a new life.”
Mann’s anxiety about her hearing isn’t unfounded. Despite her lawyer’s efforts to prepare her by minimizing the amount of trauma Mann revisits throughout her appeals process, her hearing will still include testimonies from an eyewitness to her abuse and a psychiatrist who has evaluated her multiple times throughout the years. And in the end, it will be up to the judge to decide whether she qualifies for resentencing under the DVSJA. The preconceptions and biases about domestic abuse, trauma, race, and culpability held by a single judge will determine if Mann is entitled to immediate relief and can return to a new world with the potential to restart her life.