Ever since Judge Edward T. McLaughlin sentenced Nicole “Nikki” Addimando to 19 years to life in prison on Feb. 11, 2020, Addimando’s friends, family and supporters have looked towards the case’s appeal hearing as the next opportunity to challenge Addimando’s conviction and sentencing. On April 22, Addimando’s appeal was argued in front of the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division by Gerrard Beeney, pro-bono legal counsel from Sullivan & Cromwell. First Assistant Putnam County District Attorney Larry Glasser gave his oral argument in response to Addimando’s appeal points. The Appellate panel included four judges: William Mastro, Renaldo Rivera, Colleen Duffy and Sylvia O. Hinds-Radix.
A 12-person grand jury found Addimando guilty of second degree murder in April 2019 for shooting her boyfriend Christopher Grover in September of 2017. Addimando worked at Vassar’s nursery school, Wimpfheimer, from 2011 to 2012. She argued during the trial that she killed Grover in self defense after he threatened to kill her for leaving him. Her defense displayed evidence of years of horrific physical and emotional sexual abuse tied to Grover.
After her conviction, Addimando requested to be sentenced under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA), which Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law in May 2019. The act allows judges to give amended sentences for victims of domestic violence who are convicted of crimes. McLaughlin denied sentencing Addimando under the act, arguing that she had an opportunity to leave Grover.
Beeney presented five key legal errors during the hearing that he argued form the basis for an appeal. In response to McLaughlin’s sentence, Beeney argued that McLaughlin failed to follow the sentencing guidelines under the DVSJA despite the fact that Addimando met the criteria. He explained that Addimando qualifies to be sentenced under the act because she was a victim of substantial domestic abuse at the time the crime was committed. He further claimed that the abuse played a significant factor in the crimes for which she was convicted and a sentence of 19 years to life is unduly harsh.
Beeney asserted that McLaughlin made an error when considering the jury’s rejection of Addimando’s claims of self defense as evidence that she did not qualify under the DVSJA. “I don’t see how logically one can take the position that because justification was rejected by a jury, a person convicted of committing a crime is not entitled to a reduced sentence,” Beeney said to the panel of judges. “If the justification had been accepted by the jury, there would be no sentencing,” he argued. Judges questioned Beeney and Glasser about how the years of abuse should be factored into qualifying Addimando for sentencing under the DVSJA, even if the jury does not believe there was a self defense justification the night of the shooting.
Because of how recently the DVSJA was passed, this will be the first appellate panel to consider the legal implications of the act. If the appellate court decides to resentence Addimando under the DVSJA, she could get a reduced sentence of five to 10 years. Addimando is requesting a sentence of five years under the DVSJA from the court.
Beeney alleged during the hearing that the first consequential error of the case occurred when McLaughlin dismissed Addimando’s Dutchess county public defender, Kara Gerry, based on the prosecution’s claim that there was a conflict of interest. Gerry had been working on Addimando’s case for nine months when prosecuting Assistant Putnam County District Attorney Chana Krauss argued that because a key witness of the prosecution had been represented by the Dutchess County Public Defenders in an unrelated DUI case, that there was an unwaivable conflict of interest for Gerry to be representing Addimando. Gerry was not employed at the Dutchess County Public Defender’s Office at the time the witness was represented and had never had any contact with the witness. Beeney explained to the panel that Addimando understood the conflict and signed a waiver to keep her representation after consulting with independent legal counsel.
Beeney further explained that McLaughlin allowed misleading testimony during the questioning of a key witness when prosecutors guided a police detective witness through hearsay testimony about the murder weapon. The witness suggested to the jury that the gun used to shoot Grover had been wiped down with baby wipes, yet prosecutors knew that the forensic evidence did not show any cleaning residue on the gun.
Further, Beeney explained that McLaughlin and prosecutors wrongfully excluded evidence central to Addimando’s defense. A Pornhub profile named “Groverrespect” uploaded images of Addimando being sexually abused and physically assaulted in the house Addimando and Grover shared. While the photos were shown to the grand jury to illustrate the abuse, McLaughlin prohibited the Pornhub profile, which matches Grover’s name and demographic information, from being shown during the trial on the grounds that the profile could not be authenticated as Grover’s. Beeney argued that the jury should have been able to consider the evidence of the profile and surmise from the context whether the profile belonged to Grover or not.
When Glasser defended McLaughlin’s decision to exclude the evidence of the Pornhub profile, Mastro pushed back, saying, “The [prosecutors] were suggesting throughout this entire trial that the injuries inflicted on the defendant could have been from other sources other than Grover. If that’s the position you’re taking, then the evidence we’re talking about with the identification on [the Pornhub profile] would have changed the dynamic of the [prosecutor’s] case.” Mastro then bluntly asked Glasser to explain what Addimando’s motive was for killing Grover according to prosecutors, indicating his skepticism of the prosecution’s strategy for characterizing Addimando during the trial.
The judges could overturn her conviction, resentence her or affirm her conviction and sentencing. The Nikki Addimando Community Defense Committee released a statement after the trial thanking supporters of Addimando for their support. “The hearing was intense, and for many, difficult to watch … [W]e want to express our deep gratitude to the judges, who seemed to consider the gravitas of this situation and asked meaningful, truth-seeking questions,” the statement reads. It could take months for the Appellate Division to make a decision about Addimando’s case.