Gender & Sexuality

The Evidence Against Her

When Nikki Addimando shot her abusive partner, she thought she had enough proof it was self-defense. Why did the prosecution only see a cold-blooded killer?
Hokyoung Kim

This feature contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence which may be disturbing to some readers.

  • Our partner

In the years before Nicole “Nikki” Addimando stood trial for second-degree murder, she was a stay-at-home mom, her days filled with preschool drop-offs and singalongs. “A crafty, Pinteresty mom,” said one friend. “The proudest mama on the planet,” said another. In the fall of 2017, Nikki and her two small children, Ben and Faye, were living with Christopher Grover, Nikki’s boyfriend of nine years and the kids’ dad. The family rented a three-bedroom basement apartment on the east side of Poughkeepsie in upstate New York. Nikki, then 28, had worked as a preschool teacher, but when she was pregnant with Ben in 2012,the couple decided she would leave her job to raise him — and, two years later, Faye. With money tight, Nikki found free activities for the kids throughout the Hudson Valley, a stretch of intermittently tony and depressed suburbs: apple-picking, corn-maze-walking, roller-skating.

Hokyoung Kim

Hokyoung Kim

Nikki retained a new defense team, John Ingrassia and Ben Ostrer, who Gerry briefed and to whom she handed over her files. Ingrassia is a slender, rangy former prosecutor, with a specialty in DWI hearings and a reputation as an excellent trial attorney. Ostrer is a relentlessly friendly career defense attorney with white hair and ruddy cheeks and expertise in forensics. When I first met them in a windowless conference room weeks before the trial, the mood was tense. Ingrassia was taciturn and skittish while Ostrer paged through a book called Defending Battered Women on Trial. The men were worried any comments they made to the media could hurt their client. Ostrer would only say the case would hinge on whether or not the jury believed that Nikki was “justified when she pulled the trigger.”

In self-defense cases where a woman has killed a partner, the criminal justice system struggles to categorize her. Ninety-six percent of intimate partner murder-suicide victims are female, and almost all are killed by men with firearms; four women a day die of domestic violence. At first glance, Nikki seemed to skirt the statistics only in her refusal to take a bullet. But in doing so, she was plunged into a system that demands black-and-white categorizations: Offenders kill, and victims die; offenders are monsters, and victims are angels. “So, if your abuser is not a monster and if your victim is not an angel, they are not ‘victim-abuser’,” Leigh Goodmark, a professor of law at the University of Maryland and the author of Decriminalizing Domestic Violence, told me. “Very few people exist on these binaries.”

***

Krauss was assigned to Nikki’s case in November 2017. She spent six months, she told me, “living through Nikki’s life,” “investigating … as if she was my victim.” “Individuals around me were saying, ‘It’s so clear she’s full of shit… .’ I said, ‘I need to keep an open mind to the possibility there is truth to something she’s saying.” Krauss decided that Nikki’s narrative of traumatic events was “inconsistent.” The narrative was complicated by Nikki’s disclosures that Chris was not her only abuser.

Hokyoung Kim

***

“We were convinced Nikki was seriously and severely abused,” Ostrer later reflected to me. “We did the best we could to present that to the jury, but we were challenged by some evidentiary rulings that prevented us from putting what we believed was some very persuasive evidence before the jury.”

Throughout the trial, Krauss always returned to her declaration that Chris was asleep when Nikki killed him, which meant that even if Nikki had told the truth about everything else, she had still lied about the exact moment of the shooting. However, the state medical examiner testified it is impossible to ascertain if a person was asleep or awake at the time of death. And the state’s DNA expert testified that Nikki had likely held the gun so briefly she hadn’t left a reliable trace; Chris, the expert said, was the “major contributor” of genetic material. However, by saying that Chris was asleep, Krauss was more able to traverse the issues of imminence and justification at the heart of the self-defense statute. And she created doubt.

Hokyoung Kim

Throughout it all, every week in room 311 at the Dutchess County Jail, Nikki and her children met, even as they prepared for her to be moved to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison 45 miles south. Horton and Crenshaw told the kids Nikki’s forthcoming relocation was the “next step toward her coming home.” At the jail, the small family ate Skittles and mini donuts and conjured up an imaginary home in an alternate reality: 560 Together Lane. They crawled beneath the metal table, decorated it with balls of paper and strings of toilet paper, and pretended to be reunited for real, playing out the comforting banalities of domesticity: sleeping, eating, singing. They envisioned living on Together Lane one day and planned a celebration for Nikki’s release. Five-year-old Faye was optimistic, but Ben, seven, was hesitant. He stood in awe of a system that seemed to heap punishments upon them all without cease.

I met Krauss at her office in early March. We sat at a dark wood table with a bowl of candies and a vase of yellow roses. The case, Krauss told me, “became all of me.” Nikki had “created this horrible story,” Krauss said, and she was “really grateful the truth came out.” In nearly three decades, she had never given a media interview, but she agreed to talk because she hoped the press would have “the courage to print the truth.”

About the reporter

Justine van der Leun

Justine van der Leun

Justine van der Leun is the author of several books, including We Are Not Such Things (Random House, 2016).

×

We bring hidden stories to light. Don’t miss the next one! Get our free newsletter now.

Subscribe