“We love a true crime story when the woman is dead. Her naked body is the starting point of most podcasts, and shows, and books,” says journalist Justine van der Leun in the opening moments of her own podcast, Believe Her. She goes on to describe the ways in which such stories often proceed after the dead woman is whisked away. “The hero is a hard-drinking cop with his own demons, or the hero is an honorable prosecutor with a heart of gold... the end game is always a trial that results in hard prison time. This is the only way we can envision justice? The woman is dead, and her killer is locked up. And then it happens all over again.”
That’s not the way the story unfolds in Lemonada Media’s Believe Her, which completed its six-episode run last week. If much of contemporary true crime media’s popularity lies in the comforting mythologies it spreads about the nature of criminality and the legal system, Believe Her is the rare piece of true crime media that tells a story challenging all of these narratives. The woman at its center, Nicole Addimando, is not dead. Law enforcement comes to no one’s rescue. Justice, it suggests, has not been served.
“It is true crime, but it’s the opposite,” van der Leun told Jezebel in a phone interview. “That’s how we decided to look at it, through this upside-down lens of true crime. It’s not going the way you think it’s going to go. So what happens then?”
In 2017, Addimando was a stay-at-home mom-of-two living in Poughkeepsie, New York with her partner, gymnastics coach Christopher Grover. On the night of September 27th, she shot Grover to death in their home in what she described as the culmination of years of physical and sexual torture. A gun-wielding Grover had threatened to kill her and then himself, Addimando told authorities, and when he momentarily dropped the weapon, she grabbed it and shot him in self-defense.
For years, Addimando had told friends, healthcare providers, and even the police that she was being abused. Her injuries—many photographed and documented by professionals—were horrifying, and included bruises, black eyes, and genital burns resulting from, she said, Grover assaulting her with a spoon heated over the stove. A victim assistance program Addimando turned to for support had assessed that she was in the category of victims at highest risk of being murdered by her partner. Grover’s phone had been used to search for the phrase, “Will police know if ahe [sic] was asleep when I shoot her?” just before he died, supporting Addimando’s claim that her life was in immediate danger on that particular evening. And yet, in 2019, she was found guilty of his murder and was eventually sentenced to 19 years to life in prison.
Addimando is what’s known as a “criminalized survivor”—a victim of abuse whose attempt to save their own life, or the lives of others, is prosecuted by law enforcement. And the stories of women like Addimando turn all the tropes typically propagated by true crime on their heads. The women at the center of true crime stories are usually deceased, for one, and they’re often the victims of assailants unknown to them, or they’re killed in mysterious, challenging-to-solve circumstances. Criminalized survivors more closely resemble the majority of women homicide victims: They are harmed by someone close to them, often an intimate partner. Almost all true crime stories focus on white women, while criminalized survivors, like a disproportionate number of incarcerated women, are likely to be women of color. And instead of being rescued by law enforcement heroics, they are victimized once again by a legal system that views them as offenders.
During her trial, prosecutors argued that Addimando had intentionally murdered Grover in his sleep, though the medical examiner testified that it was impossible to tell whether he had been sleeping or awake at the time of his death. They suggested that she had caused her own injuries, and, using her history of sexual abuse against her, that she was a serial fabricator of abuse stories.
“I wish more than anything this ended another way,” Addimando said in a statement at her sentencing. “If it had, I wouldn’t be in this courtroom, but I wouldn’t be alive either, and I wanted to live.” Her circumstances, she said, helped explain why women struggle to leave abusive partners: “So often we end up dead or where I’m standing. Alive but still not free.”
One of the few ways in which Believe Her fits into the true-crime mold is that Addimando is a white, suburban woman. Her family and friends have been able to marshal a community to advocate for her release, organizing rallies, benefits, and other events on her behalf. “It’s a very white group of people in a white community,” said van der Leun. “Middle-class, some upper-middle-class people, and they have a lot of access and connections. They’re not stretched thin.” Many other imprisoned abuse victims aren’t able to protest their imprisonment so effectively, though some activists, like those affiliated with Survived and Punished, are pushing for mass clemency for criminalized survivors.
Believe Her forgoes many of the drama-inducing twists and turns often present in true crime storytelling, and instead takes a straightforward approach that begins with its title, urging the listener to take Addimando’s account of her abuse as the truth. In making the show, van der Leun and her team decided to “just tell the audience exactly what we know right away. And just tell them where we stand with the story,” she said. “Not making it the normal crime show, where it draws it out until the last episode. Just being like, ‘I’m going to tell you that she did this. She said it was self-defense. I believe her. I’m going to tell you why, but she’s in prison.’”
In recent years, some criminalized survivors, such as Cyntoia Brown and Marissa Alexander, have become nationally recognized. But many, many more women go unknown, serving out lengthy prison terms. Van der Leun, who is working on a book about the criminalized survivor phenomenon, co-created a survey asking women imprisoned on murder or manslaughter charges around the country for their stories. She’s received hundreds of responses, many from women who killed men they say abused them. One of the first recorded American cases featuring a criminalized survivor occurred in 1855, when a woman named Celia killed her enslaver, who had raped her for years. She was hanged.
Addidmando is still imprisoned, but is closer to freedom than she was at the time of her sentencing. In July, an appellate court reduced her sentence to 7½ years in prison under New York’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, which was signed into law a month after her conviction. And Addimando’s supporters are still pushing for her freedom. They’ve created a petition asking Governor Kathy Hochul to approve Addimando’s clemency application.
Cases like Addimando’s muddle simplistic definitions of “victims” and “offenders,” and the criminal legal system is currently ill-equipped to handle them. “My argument is that it’s systemic,” said van der Leun. Prosecutors’ “default is to prosecute. And when they prosecute, their default tends to be to try to get these insanely long sentences and punish as hard as possible, because we conflate punishment and justice.”
The true-crime trend, with its stranger dangers and swashbuckling detectives and sentences measuring in the hundreds of years, usually has little to offer when it comes to reimagining our ideas surrounding criminality and punishment. But stories like Addimando’s help expose the ways the wheels of justice often turn, away from the handful of crime stories that capture the public’s attention.
“Nikki isn’t a one-off,” said van der Leun. “And I think what’s really interesting about this case is you see how these state actors act to her. And if you can see it here, what do you think happens when you’re not looking?”