A San Francisco Housing Complex Gives Domestic Abuse Victims a New Start

Nestled on her Chesterfield sofa, her electric wheelchair close at hand, Rosemary Dyer surveyed the glittering peacock figurines she had snapped up on her first solo trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown after leaving prison, and admired the bright tablecloth with silk flowers in her new living room.

Dyer, an effervescent woman with a mischievous sense of humor, brought these and other prized possessions to Home Free, a new complex of transitional apartments in San Francisco. It was designed for women who have been imprisoned for killing her abusive partner or being at the scene of a crime under the coercion of an abusive spouse or boyfriend. Dyer was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1988 for the 1985 shooting death of her husband of eight years, who had abused and tortured her, in an era when expert testimony related to domestic violence and its effects was not permissible in court in most states.

The insidious viciousness that defined her life included being repeatedly beaten, and sodomized with a loaded handgun. Her husband had dug a grave in the backyard, saying he intended to bury her alive.

“We wanted color!” said Dyer, who visited the construction site while she was still in temporary housing. She and others had a particular aversion to gray, a shade associated with metal prison bunks and lockers.

A 69-year-old cancer survivor with congestive heart failure, Dyer has used a wheelchair since she injured her hip in prison. A huge pirate flag — a nod to the Treasure Island theme — greets visitors upon arrival. Her accessible apartment adjoins a patio where she grows pots of tomatoes and radishes.

The landscape itself was designed by Hyunch Sung, of the firm Mithun, who chose 10 different tree species. (Because Treasure Island’s soil is tainted by industrial chemicals, the trees are planted in brightly-painted containers.) Sung said she approached her work there as if she were designing for high-end clients. “The idea of beauty is underplayed for disadvantaged communities,” she said.

Nilda Palacios, 38, who lives upstairs, said it was “emotionally moving” to join the complex. She grew up with a history of abuse: She was molested as a child by an uncle and stepfather and then raped as a 15-year-old by a high school teacher. The stressful trial of the teacher led her to rely on drugs and alcohol (“I was trying to sleep my life away,” she said). Palacios became distraught and suicidal. When a panhandler cornered her one day, she said, she thought he intended to attack her and “lashed out,” strangling him. She was convicted of second-degree murder. Incarcerated for 17 years, she benefited from therapists in prison who helped her understand “how the depth of my crime was related to my history,” she said. “I confused someone who wasn’t a threat with someone who was.”

Palacios was released on parole. She has benefited from a more expansive vision for Home Free, which now welcome women like her, whose crimes were linked directly to their abuse.

Sentenced to 19 years to life for second-degree murder, Addimando was entitled to a subsequent hearing under the Act, where her claims of abuse might be factored into a reduced sentence. The county court judge rejected those claims, believing she “had the opportunity to safely leave her abuser.” In July, the state Supreme Court’s Appellate Division reversed that decision, reducing Ms. Addimando’s time behind bars to 7 ½ years.

To Kate Mogulescu, an associate professor at Brooklyn Law School and director of its Survivors Justice Project, the case illustrates “the impossible burdens we put on survivors to prove their victimization.” Women are scrutinized in court in ways that are very different from men, she added. “With women, they’re a bad mother, or promiscuous. Tropes get trotted out on women and the punishments reflect that.” Nevertheless, so far, 16 women have been resentenced in New York.

By far the most common reason women who have been abused by intimate partners wind up in prison is the so-called accomplice laws, in which a victim is coerced into being at the scene of an abuser’s violence, such as driving the getaway car, said Colby Lenz, a co-founder of Survived and Punished, a national advocacy organization.

That was the case with Tammy Cooper Garvin, who was sex trafficked at age 14 and was imprisoned for 28 years for being in the car while her pimp murdered a client. Her sentence was commuted and she was hired by Home Free as its residential coordinator.

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