The Prison Letters Project: Considering Past Trauma

I’m John J. Lennon, a prison journalist serving a 28-years-to-life aggregate sentence for selling drugs and murder. Today I’m a contributing editor at Esquire, I write frequently for The Times and I’m working with Emily Bazelon, a staff writer at the magazine, on the Prison Letters Project. This is the second installment of the project’s newsletters for the magazine.

Bazelon started the Prison Letters Project to answer correspondence she receives from incarcerated people — and amplify the voices of the writers. In 2021, The New York Times Magazine published her cover story about the exoneration of Yutico Briley, who had written to her from prison in Louisiana. After that story came out, Bazelon began receiving even more letters from people in prison. A group of students at Yale Law School (where she is a lecturer) started logging portions of them into a public database (hosted by Freedom Reads, an organization that takes libraries and literary programs to prisons) with the permission and participation of the people who wrote them. Many letters claim innocence, and others raise difficult questions about punishment for people who commit serious crimes.

Occasionally, Emily, her students and I will select a letter and dive more deeply into the facts of the case. We did this with our first entry on Tim Young, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in California (he claims innocence). Young now has representation on appeal. A couple of years ago, Bazelon began receiving letters from Ivié DeMolina, who was convicted for her part in the 1994 murders of one man in New York and another in New Jersey, though she says she did not directly participate in the actual killings. She was sentenced to 25 years to life in New York and has been in prison there for 28 years. If she receives parole in that state, she faces a consecutive sentence of 30 years to life in New Jersey.

“I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence,” DeMolina, who is 56, wrote in one of her letters. “I am someone who was not wrongfully convicted, but wrongfully represented.”

What drew me to DeMolina’s letters, beyond her frankness about her guilt, which was refreshing, was her vulnerability. “I was never an evil person,” she wrote. “Please help me save the rest of my life.”

DeMolina says her trauma-filled past doesn’t excuse her behavior, but the fact that it went unexplored at her trial could have contributed to her long sentences. Her New York trial lawyer agreed. More than 20 years after the trial, in an affidavit, he said he did not receive state funding to do a “proper investigation” of DeMolina’s past to reveal a full picture of the trauma she suffered. “I’m sure she had doubts about what she could tell me and probably did not trust anyone,” he wrote.

At the time, DeMolina chose not to reveal her history in court because her mother was present. She said that in the wake of those childhood traumas, she was often angry and filled with hate. “I believed I was lost forever with an unrepairable, unsalvageable brokenness.” For a short period in her 20s, she was doing sex work as a dominatrix. In August 1994, when she was 27, she set up a date in the New Jersey apartment of a client she’d had sex with before, according to court records. Once she and her accomplices were inside, the team restrained the man at gunpoint and robbed him.

The following day, DeMolina set up a similar meeting in the New Jersey apartment of James Polites, a man she had dated. He was later found dead, his apartment ransacked. Three days after the call to Polites, DeMolina and her accomplices moved on to Long Island, where they visited another man she previously knew, Joseph Fiammetta. He was also found dead in his home, from a stabbing.

The New York Daily News dubbed DeMolina the “leader of the gang.” In 1996, she was convicted in New York of second-degree murder in connection with Fiammetta’s killing, as well as robbery and burglary.

After she was sentenced to 25 years to life in New York, DeMolina was sent to Bergen County, N.J., to be prosecuted for Polites’s murder. She accepted a plea deal that resulted in a second sentence, of 30 years to life, to run consecutive to — rather than concurrent with — the New York sentence. DeMolina says her lawyer told her that she would be able to merge the sentences at a later date. The lawyer says that that’s not true and that he advised DeMolina to go to trial.

DeMolina says that the New Jersey court was not presented with a psychiatric evaluation or mitigation report, each of which detailed her childhood sexual abuse. “Not once in NY was I asked: ‘What happened to you?’” she wrote.

The salacious details of DeMolina’s crimes have trailed her. In 2017, she was featured on “Inside With Chris Cuomo,” an HLN series, which described her in a summary as a “dominatrix who killed two of her customers.” “Love Lockdown,” a 2021 book by Elizabeth Greenwood, describing a Daily News article about DeMolina’s crime, said, “It sounds like the plot of the 2019 film ‘Hustlers,’ also based on a true story, in which strippers drugged and robbed men from Wall Street, but with a body count.”

Through a rehabilitation program at Bedford Hills, where she is incarcerated, DeMolina learned to put her pain on the page, including in a 2021 essay in Harper’s Bazaar, published through a partnership with PEN America, the literary organization. In a poem in one of her letters, she wrote of the murder victims, “I viewed them back then on my traumatized-on-drugs-mind/As sexual oppressors who deepened the trauma/That was inflicted on me as a child.” But also, “Still no excuses for the enormity of it all No One should have died.”

According to the A.C.L.U., more than 60 percent of women in prison have reported histories of sexual abuse. In 2019, New York passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, which makes certain survivors of abuse eligible for resentencing, if the abuse was a “significant contributing factor” to the crimes for which they were convicted. The law says the abuser does not have to be the victim of the crime.

With the help of Survived and Punished, an advocacy coalition, DeMolina is raising money for a lawyer to help her make the case for relief from her sentence in New Jersey. “This appeal is my one shot here,” she wrote. “I’m writing for my life.”

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