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New law has power to change outcomes for abuse survivors who act in self-defense

May 20, 2019

Credit freeimages.com/Jenny W.

Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act into law.

It allows judges to consider the trauma of domestic abuse when sentencing people who have killed or hurt their alleged abusers in self-defense.

Kim Brown of Rochester has been actively campaigning for the measure for over a decade; that's how long she's been out of prison.

"I shot and killed my boyfriend in self-defense in 1991 and I spent 17 years in prison," Brown said.  Brown asked us not to use her boyfriend's name. She said he was violent with her throughout their relationship.

"I had all the proof," she said. "I had him arrested five times. I was in the hospital several times. I went to the women’s shelter several times over the course of the four and a half years we were together."

Brown recalled the moment she said she thought her boyfriend was going to kill her. It was December 17, 1991.  He picked Kim up in his car late that night.

"He came to my mom's house out in Charlotte and I knew he came to do me harm," she said.

They started arguing, and Brown said her boyfriend was choking her and pushing her head down. That's when she reached under her seat for the gun she knew he kept there. 

"I just happened to grab the gun first, " she said.

The gun went off.  Brown got out of the car and ran back to the house.  Her boyfriend drove off around the corner but his body was found in the snow the following morning. Brown was convicted of first degree manslaughter.

"You never think 'I'm gonna go to prison' or 'I'm gonna end up taking someone else's life'," she said. "You don't plan on these things, so you just have to survive it."

According to Meaghan deChateauview, executive director of Willow Domestic Violence Center, 84 percent of women sent to prison for violent felony offenses are first time offenders; nine out of 10 are survivors of abuse.

"So if you put those two pieces together," she said, "the chances are a majority of women who are serving time who are incarcerated because of violent felonies, it's because of self-defense against their abusers. This act will change all of that."

The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act gives judges the leeway to resuce prison sentences for victims of domestic abuse who are believed to have acted in self-defense. A judge can also change a sentence from incarceration to community-based programs that are considered more effective in rehabilitating survivors.

Kim Brown said she cried when Cuomo signed the measure into law. She was waiting for that moment and emailing other advocates for abuse survivors across the state.

"It is surreal to know that we are changing the course of history," she said. "No other woman will have to do 17 years in prison like I did for defending myself."

Brown has a message for anyone who is in an abusive relationship.

"Reach out," she advised. "There are people that can help you, no matter how scared you are of him...if he's sitting next to you right now and you're petrified. There's no greater fear than sleeping next to the person you fear every single night. There's no greater fear. And I truly believe if you have not felt that fear then you cannot possibly understand it."

The number for Willow Domestic Violence Center's 24 hour hotline is  (585) 222-SAFE.

The National Domestic Violence hotline is 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.