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Home / Articles / Ending Domestic Violence / Sentenced for Defending Themselves

Sentenced for Defending Themselves

Documentary ‘And So I Stayed’ is about the survivors who spend years behind bars for fighting back

Domestic violence survivor behind bars for defending herself

Men, on average, are sentenced to two to six years in prison for murdering a female partner, according to the ACLU. But when women kill their male partners (which is often in self-defense), they get an average of 15 years. 

Fifteen years. 

Fifteen years for fighting back. 

Fifteen years for protecting themselves. 

Fifteen years for surviving.

And that’s just an average. Kim Dadou Brown received a 17-year prison sentence for shooting and killing her boyfriend after he climbed on top of her and said he was going to kill her in 1991. And Brown isn’t alone. As many as 90% of women who are in prison for killing a man had been previously abused by that man.

“And So I Stayed” — A Story That Needed to Be Told

Brown had been out of prison for about seven years when Natalie Pattillo contacted her. Pattillo, a domestic violence survivor herself, had also lost her sister, Jennifer, to domestic violence in 2010 when she was murdered by her boyfriend. Pattillo decided to devote her career as a reporter to shining a light on domestic violence, telling the stories of domestic violence survivors who had been criminalized for defending themselves. She asked if she could include Brown’s story in her master’s thesis.

“My project was about this incredibly and devastatingly common issue that was happening in communities throughout our country—that survivors were being incarcerated or criminalized merely for surviving,” Pattillo says. “Through my research and writing about Kim, I realized it wasn’t only me that had this gap in understanding that this wasn’t a one-off situation that happened to a few survivors. This was an everyday occurrence, and almost no one was talking about it.”

Pattillo shared her thesis with a friend, fellow journalist and filmmaker Daniel A. Nelson. He expressed similar sentiments. 

“I just remember being really blown away by the story. I had not been privy to how prevalent this issue was of domestic violence survivors being criminalized for defending themselves against their abusers. And the more I learned about this issue, the more I became very attached to it,” Nelson says. “Natalie is an incredible writer and journalist, and Kim is one of those people who just sort of jumps off the page when you read about her; she’s an incredibly compelling person.”

Nelson suggested he and Pattillo turn her thesis into a documentary. Six years later, And So I Stayed premiered at the Brooklyn Film Festival in 2021.

Shining a Light on Justice System Bias

Through sharing the stories of three domestic violence survivors who had been incarcerated for killing their abusers in self-defense—Brown, Tanisha Davis and Nicole “Nikki” Addimando—the goal of the film is to shine a light on the bias of the justice system against women, especially women of color. Naturally, the filming process was full of ups and downs. 

Even before being released from prison, Brown had become an advocate for other survivors with stories like hers. During filming, the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA), which Brown helped draft the legislation for, finally was signed into New York law in 2019 after 10 years of failed attempts. The DVSJA, which allows judges to consider a wider range of domestic violence issues when sentencing survivors, is one of the first such laws in the nation. 

With the new law in the books, Brown, Pattillo and Nelson got to work supporting Davis’ efforts for resentencing. Pattillo and Nelson produced an edited-down version of their film that helped convince the district attorney to agree to reduce Davis’ sentence from 14 years to time served, which was eight years. 

Brown, who had grown close with Davis over the years—along with the And So I Stayed film crew—was there when Davis walked out of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. 

“It was a truly wonderful, pure joy-filled day,” she says. 

“I feel so fortunate to have so many dream-come-true moments,” Brown told The New York Times. “My next dream-come-true moment will be bringing Nikki home.”

Even though Addimando was originally sentenced in 2020, after DVSJA had taken effect, the judge in her case ruled the law did not apply to her. But in July 2021, in response to her appeal, an appellate court ruled Addimando was qualified for the DVSJA, citing that the Dutchess County Court held “antiquated impressions of how domestic violence survivors should behave.” Instead of the 19 years to life she was originally sentenced to, Addimando’s sentence was reduced to seven and a half years in prison. 

“Of course, we believe she should be able to come home today, and wish she hadn’t spent a day in prison,” Nelson says, “but I think that the overturning of her original sentence sets a really good precedent for this new law going forward.”

Reaching a Larger Audience to Help Survivors 

And So I Stayed won spirit and audience awards at the Brooklyn Film Festival. The filmmakers have also held screenings for several law firms throughout the country in hopes of educating attorneys on the injustices of domestic violence. They hope to inspire change in the way survivors are treated by everyone from police, family court, prosecutors, judges and more across the U.S. Eventually, they hope And So I Stayed reaches an even larger audience by getting picked up by a television network or streaming service. 

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“We have a lot of things that we hope that this film is able to do, starting with freeing survivors from incarceration,” Nelson says. “We also want to inspire viewers to ask, ‘What can I do?’ And the answer is to use the film as a jumping off point to have these conversations, to call their representatives, to get legislation passed in communities outside of New York. This isn’t just a film; it’s people’s lives.” 

To watch And So I Stayedattend a screening or host your own, or watch remotely on Oct. 23, 2021, here.

Domestic Abuse Survivors Wrongfully Arrested

Outdated mandatory arrest laws put survivors at risk of being arrested along with abusers for acting in self-defense. But don’t let that stop you from calling the police. Learn what to do in the event you are taken into custody in “I Got Arrested, Too. Now What?