Kelly Harnett was there in 2010 when her abuser murdered someone in a New York park. Because she was present, Kelly was also charged with the victim’s death. Because she maintained her innocence and refused a plea deal, Kelly ended up with a longer term in prison than the perpetrator of the crime. He was sentenced to 15 years, while she’s serving 17 years to life for second-degree murder.
Kelly had been in a relationship with her abuser, Tommy Donovan, for four years. Donovan was a mixed martial arts fighter, and Kelly lived constantly in fear of his violence—he was always threatening her, and he threatened Kelly’s mother too. One day Donovan threw Kelly against a tree, splitting her head open, after he grew impatient waiting when he picked her up at her mother’s. Kelly later recalled, “I started screaming crying and he put his hands around my throat, telling me that if I did not shut up, he would kill me.”
Another time, he threw her to the ground after a night of smashing car mirrors in a park; the police arrived to find Kelly bleeding from a split lip. As Donovan’s violence and manipulation continued, Kelly felt her world shrinking. She was trapped without a network of support. He threatened to kill himself if she left; she thought he might kill her. Kelly came from a background marked by violence and financial difficulties, which contributed to the abusive relationship she engaged in.
Kelly had no part in the murder she’s incarcerated for. She feared for her life that night, too, as her abuser used a shoelace to strangle his victim in Astoria Park. Following the incident, the media inaccurately characterized Kelly and her boyfriend as “homeless” or “transient”—which contributed to bias as Kelly’s criminal process got underway.
Kelly’s trial was similarly unfair. She lacked effective counsel. She wanted to call Tommy Donovan as a witness—he’d written a letter exculpating her—but her attorney advised against it. The prosecution claimed Kelly “acted in concert” with her abuser, not taking into account the years of physical and emotional trauma she’d suffered at his hands. While Kelly maintained her innocence, Donovan accepted a plea deal. Her co- defendant is now deceased making her the sole party for doing time for this crime.
Compounding Kelly’s trauma is the fact that she felt that she had to be “a one woman army “ in fighting her conviction. She was up against a prosecutor with years of experience and a judge who denied her a fair trial. In addition, because her attorney is deceased she cannot access court files. In prison now for eight years, Kelly has become a certified law clerk and is helping other women fight their convictions. Kelley in fact contributed to the reversal of another incarcerated survivor of domestic violence who is now home. Kelley has spent sleepless nights writing court motions and has educated herself in the legal field the entire time that she has been incarcerated.
When she gets out, she wants to become a paralegal. Her case is an example of the links between domestic violence and the carceral system—of how easily survivors can be punished for events that happen outside of their control. Kelly recognizes, too, how the effects of trauma and abuse spiral outward and punish others indirectly. Kelly’s mother has had numerous spinal surgeries and requires physical assistance, which Kelly wishes she were able to provide. Kelly wants to go home and help her mother, as well as other survivors of domestic violence.