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Closing Argument

They Killed Their Abusive Partners. Now Their Sentences Could Be Reconsidered.

Oklahoma could re-examine how it punishes people whose crimes came after years of domestic abuse. Other states may follow.

Demonstrators, dressed in black clothing, hold large posters of women and signs that read "OK Survivor Justice Coalition" while standing outside the Oklahoma State Capitol.
Demonstrators outside the Oklahoma State Capitol in Oklahoma City on May 23, 2023, advocate for a measure that would allow courts to consider someone’s abuse history when sentencing them for certain crimes.

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This week, Oklahoma came closer to passing a law allowing judges to reduce criminal sentences for some domestic violence survivors whose abuse “was a substantial contributing factor” to their crime.

The bill, pushed by several Republican legislators, had broad bipartisan support in a state with the nation’s highest rate of domestic violence and the third-highest rate of women in prison. The state Senate had to overcome a veto from Gov. Kevin Stitt — the House would need to do the same for the bill to become law. Similar efforts in other states have also faced pushback from prosecutors and lawmakers using “tough-on-crime” rhetoric.

The Oklahoma measure, which would allow incarcerated people to apply for retroactive resentencing, comes after years of advocacy and growing attention to many survivors who are locked up for crimes that stemmed from their experience of abuse. One study of women in Oklahoma state prisons found that 66% “experienced intimate partner violence” in the year before they were incarcerated.

“We’ve shown legislators that self-defense laws aren’t working the way they should be, especially for women,” said Colleen McCarty, executive director of Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a legal nonprofit that pushed for the bill. McCarty also co-founded the Oklahoma Survivor Justice Coalition. “It’s a hugely important message to the people of Oklahoma that we understand trauma and abuse differently now, and we want to change the course of how we’ve treated these issues.”

Too often, McCarty told us, evidence of someone’s past victimization is blocked from court proceedings, and survivors end up facing harsh mandatory minimums. McCarty estimates that 50 to 75 Oklahomans could receive retroactively shorter sentences.

April Wilkens has been lobbying for the bill from a women’s prison in McCloud, east of Oklahoma City. Wilkens was sentenced to life in prison in 1998, for killing her former partner after he beat, threatened, and sexually assaulted her. “Watching another woman stare down the barrel of a lengthy sentence is heartbreaking,” she wrote in Ms. Magazine this January. “My son was only 7 when I was locked up, and our separation has felt like torture. I don’t want anyone else to go through that.” (McCarty and her colleague Leslie Briggs detailed Wilkens' case in a 2022 podcast series.)

In vetoing the bill, Stitt argued the policy could be misused. “Although sold as a shield to protect victims, this bill would create a sword by which criminal defendants will fight the imposition of justice based on prior abuse,” he wrote explaining his decision, saying the law would mean the freeing of “untold numbers of violent individuals.”

Oklahoma Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, who led the Senate override effort, said Stitt had not reached out to him with questions about the law and that the governor misrepresented how it would work.

“It is appalling that the governor wouldn’t stand up for the victims of domestic violence,” Treat said in a statement.

Efforts in other states have also met resistance. Legislators in Oregon and Minnesota have made similar proposals that failed to pass. And earlier this month, Louisiana legislators blocked a bill that would allow retroactive resentencing for victims charged with crimes against their abusers, or who were forced into a criminal act. The bill faced staunch opposition from the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, whose executive director called it a “broad net” that would “catch anyone who says I want my sentence cut in half.”

Opponents of such policies in Louisiana and elsewhere argue that there are already existing legal protections that prevent someone from being imprisoned for self-defense. But as Elizabeth Flock detailed in The Washington Post, these self-defense laws weren’t written to shield women and people of color. “Our self-defense laws must expand to acknowledge the dynamics of intimate-partner violence, especially around timing and what constitutes reasonable fear,” she wrote.

Lawmakers may look to New York to see how such policies play out. The state’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act has been on the books since 2019. It allows anyone whose abuse was a “significant contributing factor” to their crime to apply for resentencing — not only those who acted in self-defense. As of last year, 40 people had received retroactive sentencing relief, while at least 32 had been denied.

A 2021 New York Focus article noted that many people seeking relief have run up against judges’ outdated understanding of domestic violence. “A lot of judges don't really think it's that important and would just not give it that much weight,” said an attorney who represented a survivor who sought to be resentenced under the law.

In a separate case, Nicole Addimando was convicted of killing her partner — who was also the father of her two children — after years of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. She was sentenced after New York’s Justice Act was in place, but her trial judge refused to lessen her time, sending her to prison for 19 years. A state appellate court later overruled that decision.

“It is unacceptable that, in reflecting the views of a more enlightened society, the Legislature saw fit to enact the DV Survivor's Act, only to have the court frustrate that legislative intent by applying outdated notions regarding domestic violence issues,” they wrote.

Addimando went home in January, after 7 ½ years behind bars.

Christie Thompson Twitter Email is a staff writer reporting on mental health, solitary confinement, and prison conditions. Her investigative series with NPR examining violence in double-celled “solitary confinement” won a George Polk Award for Justice Reporting and was a finalist for an IRE Award and the John Bartlow Martin Award.

Cary Aspinwall Twitter Email is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, she was an investigative reporter at The Dallas Morning News, where she reported on the impact of pre-trial incarceration and money bail on women and children in Texas and deaths in police custody involving excessive force and medical negligence. She won the Gerald Loeb Award for reporting on a Texas company's history of deadly natural gas explosions and is a past Pulitzer finalist for her work exposing flaws in Oklahoma's execution process.