Activists scrutinize criminal justice system after apparent suicide of MMA fighter convicted of multiple assaults
A Putnam County MMA fighter's apparent suicide this week following nearly a decade of assault and domestic violence convictions is shining a light on what some say is a serious breakdown in the criminal justice system.
One assault left Jenny Zerello injured and with lifelong emotional scars. Putnam County prosecutors says the man responsible, heavyweight MMA fighter Joe Vitale, was sentenced to 30 days in prison and probation.
"I was thrown over a couch. I had the dining room table chair swung into my side. I had my head slammed into the wall multiple times," Zerello says.
However, Carmel police say Vitale killed himself on Sunday.
Authorities in three counties spanning two states confirmed that the assault in 2017 wasn't Vitale's first.
"This particular incident and the result wasn't necessary. It didn't have to reach that point," Zerello says. "Had his history and his repeat offenses been taken into consideration, he would have been incarcerated."
According to the Westchester County District Attorney's Office, Vitale was again sentenced to probation last year for violating the restraining order in place for Zerello.
Connecticut online records show that Vitale was sentenced to 18 months in jail and four years on probation there for a separate assault involving another victim in 2013.
Domestic violence activist and "Fearless!" director Kellyann Kostyal-Larrier says there's a dangerous pattern of repeat behavior to these crimes that is often overlooked.
"When an abuser has a complete disregard to the system, we should be looking at that level of risk as potentially being lethal," she says. "Domestic violence abusers are very rarely held accountable. Jail or prison sentences are rare unless they've killed their victim or almost killed their victim, and that says a lot about how the system views those who are abusive to their partners."
Kostyal-Larrier says changes to current laws are needed while others push for a domestic violence registry.
When contacted, Vitale's family claimed that News 12 had the wrong person and otherwise declined to comment.
The reasons for the apparent suicide are not known at this time.