A Movie Tries to Make a Distinction for Home Violence Survivors

In 2013, Tanisha Davis, a 26-year-old woman from Rochester, NY, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for killing her boyfriend and a beating the night he died. The judge agreed that she was a victim of domestic violence, but said that her response deserves no indulgence. “You handled the situation completely wrong,” he told her. “You could have gone.”

In 2021, the same judge dismissed Davis on a new law that allowed domestic violence survivors to have more nuanced consideration in the courts, thanks in part to a documentary that helped shape their case.

It is not uncommon for documentary projects to have an impact on legal proceedings once they have found an audience and built public attention. But the film that Davis helped, “And So I Stayed,” wasn’t out yet – it wasn’t even finished – when filmmakers Natalie Pattillo and Daniel A. Nelson put together a short video for the court of them portrayed their lives.

“You could see the strength of the bonds she had with her family and the strength of the support she would have,” said Angela N. Ellis, one of her attorneys. The prosecutor and the judge both mentioned that they were watching the footage when they agreed to release her in March.

During her eight years in prison, Davis, 34, spoke to her son, who is now 15, every day. Now that she is at home, “I can just call him in the next room,” she said. “I can’t even explain this joy. I cry tears of joy all the time. “

For the filmmakers, it was an unexpectedly bright ending to an often heartbreaking and unsettling film. “And So I Stayed,” which premieres Saturday at the Brooklyn Film Festival (online until June 13), is personal for Pattillo, who is a survivor herself and whose sister was killed by a friend in 2010. The documentary grew out of her graduation project at Columbia Journalism School, where she met Nelson, her co-director.

“I didn’t realize how common it is that women are imprisoned for defending themselves or their children,” said Pattillo. “When I found out, I couldn’t stop reporting” to show how misunderstood and punitive these cases are within the judicial system.

The film’s first focus was on Kim Dadou Brown, who spent 17 years in prison for killing her violent boyfriend. She became a lawyer and traveled to Albany to question New York lawmakers about the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, the long-simmering piece of legislation that eventually helped free Davis. Introduced in 2011, it was finally passed in 2019 after the Democrats flipped the state senate.

The law is one of the few laws in the country that gives judges more leniency in convicting victims of domestic violence who commit crimes against their perpetrators. It follows a growing, research-based understanding of the patterns of abusive relationships and the unique impact they have on the people in them.

“Leaving is the hardest part,” and the most dangerous, said Dadou Brown. “I thought all men would strike, so I stuck with mine so I knew which way the blows would be coming.”

After Dadou Brown, a Rochester native and former healthcare worker, was paroled in 2008, she volunteered with survivors and crossed the state for rallies – even when money was tight because her felony status made it difficult to find jobs, she said. With 17 earrings (one for each year of imprisonment) and her signature false eyelashes, “she’s just a force,” said Pattillo. “It’s sheer tenacity. This is Kim. “

When the bill passed, there was high spirits among its supporters and filmmakers. But they left their cameras on.

One case considered a surefire test of the crime was that of Nicole Addimando, a young mother of two in Poughkeepsie, NY, who fatally shot and killed Christopher Grover, her living friend and father of the children, in 2017. The film contains footage from police cameras of the night she was found disoriented and driving around in the early hours of the morning with her 4 and 2 year old children in the back seat.

Her case made national headlines for the severity of the abuse she allegedly suffered: bites and blue eyes; Bruises and burns on her body, including during pregnancy, that have been documented by doctors; Rapes that Grover videotaped and uploaded to a porn site. In the film, a social worker calls it not just assault, but “sexual torture”. In 2020, Addimando was sentenced to 19 years of life imprisonment for second degree manslaughter; the judge contested the applicability of the Survivor Justice Act.

“I felt like we let them down,” said Dadou Brown, who was at the conviction.

In the film, Addimando can mainly be heard as the voice on the phone from prison; with a phone call, her mother tries to comfort her that she is at least still alive, that she has escaped being mistreated. “I’m still not free,” she replies, crying.

While there are no nationwide statistics on the number of women incarcerated who defended themselves against abusers, federal research suggests that around half of women in jail have experienced physical abuse or sexual violence, most from romantic partners. Black women are disproportionately harassed by both intimate partner violence and the judicial system: they are most often killed by a romantic partner and more likely to end up in prison, according to Bernadine Waller, a researcher at Adelphi University.

When they bring stories like this to the screen, says Nelson, the filmmaker, their goal is not to deny the triggers, but to contextualize the convicts. “The legal system forces you to create the perfect victim,” he said, “and a prosecutor will do everything in his power to characterize a survivor so that he does not fit in that box.” (In Addimando’s case, the judge said she “reluctantly consented” to the sexual abuse.)

Garrard Beeney, an Addimando attorney pending a decision on her appeal, said investigating the documentary into the judiciary’s handling of survivors was “a necessary, but in my opinion, insufficient step” to change the process . Police, prosecutors and judges need training to think about domestic violence, he said. “We need this type of retraining more than a gradual process of understanding.”

For Pattillo, who had two of her three children while filming, a few moments felt overwhelmingly raw. “There is always survivor’s fault when dealing with trauma,” she said, adding, referring to Addimando, “Why was I fine and not Nikki? Why don’t you take care of your children every night? “

But it is also “very healing,” she added, “through this film to help the survivors feel seen and heard and believed.”

It originally ended on a dark note, at a vigil for Addimando. Then came the Davis case. The filmmakers were there the day she was released from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Getting used to the outdoors again – during a pandemic – is still a challenge, Davis said last week. But she wanted her story to be told as a warning to the victims and as a beacon. The filmmakers plan to make the documentary available to the legal system – “a toolkit,” Nelson said on how to apply the new law.

Dadou Brown was also in Bedford Hills; she drove Davis’ family there. Her advocacy, said Dadou Brown, has become her life’s work. “I’m so happy to have so many dream moments,” she said. “Even when I come home from prison. My next dream will come true, to bring Nikki home. “