Out in the Night

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The New Jersey Four Case

The New Jersey Four Case The crime scene. Photo: Out in the Night

As seen in Out in the Night, the exact details of the fight on August 18, 2006, in New York City's West Village -- who started it, how it escalated, how threatened each party felt -- are disputed. The 29-year-old man involved claims he made an admiring remark to the women and was subsequently attacked. He called the incident "a hate crime against a straight man." The seven women from Newark, N.J., all African-American and lesbian, say they stood up for themselves against verbal and physical harassment and acted in self-defense when they felt their lives, and the lives of their friends, were threatened. One of the women, Renata Hill, said, "With him approaching me in the manner that he was approaching, and saying the things he was saying, basically you're saying that you're going to rape me."

All seven women were arrested as they walked away after the fight. Three pleaded guilty to a violent felony and served six months in prison without going to court. The other four, Patreese Johnson, Renata Hill, Terrain Dandridge and Venice Brown, pleaded not guilty and received a range of charges, including gang assault in the second degree. Despite its name, the charge does not necessitate any actual gang affiliation; it only requires that three or more people were involved in an assault that caused serious physical injury. It is considered a class C felony and has a mandatory minimum sentence of three and a half years.

The women pleaded self-defense and went to trial, and the four defendants became known in activist circles as the "New Jersey Four." All four were found guilty of assault and gang assault. Terrain received a three-and-a-half-year sentence, Venice and Renata were sentenced to five and eight years, respectively, and Patreese was sentenced to eleven years.

The women appealed their convictions. In 2008, Terrain's conviction was dismissed on the basis that there was not enough evidence to support her charges, and she was released after having served two years in prison. Renata was granted a retrial and temporarily released on bail. In New York City, a retrial happens in front of the same judge as the The women appealed their convictions. In 2008, Terrain's conviction was dismissed on the basis that there was not enough evidence to support her charges, and she was released after having served two years in prison. Renata was granted a retrial and temporarily released on bail. In New York City, a retrial happens in front of the same judge as the original trial, but Renata worried that the judge would repeat her sentence. Instead, for six months her lawyers negotiated a plea deal with the prosecution. The shortest sentence they could agree to was three and a half years, and Renata returned to prison to serve her remaining year and a half. Venice was also granted a retrial and chose to accept a plea deal. She negotiated two years of time served and was released. Patreese's appellate lawyers fought her sentence by arguing that the stab wound she inflicted did not qualify as serious physical injury. The court rejected that argument, but her sentence was reduced to eight years "in the interest of justice." She was released from prison in 2013.

Dietrich P. Epperson, Attorney at Law. "Assault." http://www.eppersonattorney.com/practice-areas/assault/

FindLaw. "N.Y. Pen. Law § 120.06: NY Code - Section 120.06: Gang Assault in the Second Degree." http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/nycode/PEN/THREE/H/120/120.06

FindLaw. "Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department, New York. The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Renata HILL, Defendant-Appellant. The People of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Terrain Dandridge, Defendant-Appellant." http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ny-supreme-court-appellate-division/1152786.html

Hartocollis, Anemona. "Woman in Gang Assault Trial Says Man Started the Fight." The New York Times, Apr. 14, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/14/nyregion/14assault.html

Hochheiser & Hochheiser LLP. "What is Gang Assault?" http://www.hochheiser.com/Violent-Crimes/Gang-Assault.aspx

Justia. "The People of the State of New York, Respondent, v Venice Brown, Appellant. The People of the State of New York, Respondent, v Patreese Johnson, Appellant." http://law.justia.com/cases/new-york/appellate-division-first-department/2008/2008-09642.html

Out in the NightPress Release. http://www.outinthenight.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/OUTINTHENIGHT_PressKit_May20152.pdf

Wheaton, Drew. Criminal Defense Lawyer. "Felony Assault in New York." http://www.criminaldefenselawyer.com/resources/criminal-defense/criminal-offense/new-york-aggravated-assault-laws

WNYC. "'Killer Lesbians' or Victims?" The Brian Lehrer Show, June 16, 2014. http://www.wnyc.org/story/killer-lesbians-or-victims/#commentlist

Right to Self-Defense

Courtroom Animation Courtroom animation. Photo: Out in the Night

Despite the women's claims that they were verbally and then physically threatened, the court did not grant that they were acting in self-defense. Legally, self-defense is referred to as "justification," meaning that the defendant admits to their actions, but maintains that they had reasonable justification. For a defendant to be granted a claim of self-defense (or defense of another person):

  • Their actions must have been in resistance to the use of unlawful force by another person.
  • The resistant force they used cannot have been excessive. It also cannot have been fatal, unless it was in defense of a potentially fatal attack.
  • They cannot have been the first to attack, unless the person they attacked unexpectedly responded with deadly force or continued to attack even after they had withdrawn.
  • They cannot have had an opportunity to retreat with total safety, although this does not count if they were attacked in their home or workplace. It also does not count if they only used non-deadly force.

Self-defense laws are complicated and subject to interpretation, and they vary state by state. In some states, controversial "stand-your-ground" laws allow a person to use deadly force in self-defense, even if they have an opportunity to retreat, and regardless of whether they are on private or public property. (New York State does not have a "stand-your-ground" law.)

For women, especially LGBTQ women of color, navigating the court system in a self- defense case may be especially complicated. In the United States, incarceration rates for African Americans are six times the rates for white individuals and one of 100 African-American women is currently incarcerated. According to the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, there is a "strong link between violence against women and women's incarceration." The New Jersey Four, Marissa Alexander, CeCe McDonald and other women and LGBTQ individuals have been incarcerated for crimes against men they claimed had harassed them, abused them and/or directed discriminatory violence toward them. In 2003, 15-year-old Sakia Gunn, whom many of the women in the Out in the Night case knew from school, was stabbed to death in their hometown of Newark, N.J. after rebuffing a man's advances and informing him that she was a lesbian.Patreese said Sakia Gunn's story crossed her mind during the fight, and she wondered if they were "repeating history."

Buza, John. "How Does Self-Defense Work in New York?" New York City Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 20, 2014. http://www.nycriminallawyerblog.com/2014/05/20/self-defense-work-new-york/

Eastman, Susan Cooper. "Florida Woman Who Fired 'Warning Shot' Denied Self-Defense Hearing." The Huffington Post, July 21, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/21/florida-woman-warning-shot_n_5606101.html

Emanuel, Steven L. Criminal Law. 6th ed. New York: Aspen Publishers, 2007.

FindLaw. "States That Have Stand Your Ground Laws." http://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-law-basics/states-that-have-stand-your-ground-laws.html

The Huffington Post. "CeCe McDonald, Minnesota Transgender Woman, Pleads Guilty in Manslaughter Case Despite Supporters' Defense." http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/02/cece-mcdonald-minnesota-transgender-woman-manslaughter_n_1472078.html

Klein, Richard. "Race and the Doctrine of Self Defense: The Role of Race in Determining the Proper Use of Force to Protect Oneself." Touro Law Center, Journal of Race Gender and Ethnicity 4, no. 3. (Nov. 2009). http://digitalcommons.tourolaw.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1484&context=scholarlyworks

NAACP. "Criminal Justice Fact Sheet." http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet

New York State Law. "Article 35 - NY Penal Law." http://ypdcrime.com/penal.law/article35.htm

Smothers, Ronald. "Teenage Girl Fatally Stabbed at a Bus Stop in Newark." The New York Times, May 13, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/13/nyregion/teenage-girl-fatally-stabbed-at-a-bus-stop-in-newark.html

United Nations General Assembly. "Pathways to, Conditions and Consequences of Incarceration for Women." http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Women/A-68-340.pdf

Violence Against LGBTQ and LGBTQ of Color

Terrain Terrain. Photo: Out in the Night

According to research institutions like the Perception Institute and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, implicit biases--the attitudes or stereotypes that a person is not consciously aware of having, but that influence their views and actions--contribute to inequity across lines of race, gender, sexual orientation and so on. Anyone can have implicit biases, even those whose careers demand impartiality, like judges, police officers and journalists.

As black LGBTQ women from a low-income neighborhood, the New Jersey Four face an intersection of distinct types of discrimination and biases, including homophobia, sexism, racism and socio-economic inequality. According to the US Human Rights Network, the combination of factors like these "produce a unique, substantively different experience of discrimination." For instance, black men and women are both vulnerable to racism, but a black woman will likely experience racism in a distinct way, specific to the intersection of her identity as both a woman and an African American. Intersections like these can lead to challenges in finding support. For example, women as a whole may organize around gender equality, but the nuances and additional needs for women of color, LGBTQ women, women of lower socioeconomic status and so on may not be addressed by larger, single-issue movements, organizations and policies--especially if they are not led by women of color and LGBTQ individuals.

Statistically, as black LGBTQ from a low-income neighborhood, the women in Out in the Night are also more likely to experience harassment, discrimination and violence. Renata explains that they went to New York City's West Village because they viewed it as a "safe haven." For any marginalized group, finding a safe space can be a daily fear and challenge. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, LGBTQ individuals are "far more likely to be victims of a violent hate crime than any other minority group in the United States." Though official data on LGBTQ communities in the United States is scarce, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) estimates that 20 to 25 percent of people who identify as lesbian or gay experience some form of hate crime during their lifetimes (this percentage does not include bisexual or transgender individuals).In 2013, more than 70 percent of hate-violence homicides were murders of transgender women, and nearly 90 percent of all homicide victims were people of color. According to a 2013 NCAVP report, "LGBTQ and HIV-affected people of color survivors were 1.5 times more likely to experience physical violence compared to white LGBTQ survivors and were 1.4 times more likely to experience violence in the street or a public area." Black LGBTQ individuals, in particular, were twice as likely to experience threats and intimidation. The NCAVP also reports that LGBTQ and especially LGBTQ of color are more vulnerable to profiling and police violence than non-LGBTQ and white LGBTQ. In an effort to foster positive and healthy relations between police officers and the LGBTQ community, a number of police departments across the country, including the New York Police Department, have added LGBT liaison units to their task forces.

Street harassment is a common form of abuse disproportionately experienced by women, LGBTQ and individuals of color. In a 2014 survey by the nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment,65 percent of women surveyed stated that they had experienced street harassment, and of the men who had experienced street harassment, the most common form reported was "homophobic or transphobic slurs." Thirty-eight percent of respondents who were black reported experiencing "physically aggressive harassment," compared to 27 percent of white respondents.

Though the case of the New Jersey Four was not deemed a hate crime in court, the cultural and political climate of violence against LGBTQ, women and those of color paints a picture of an unsafe public arena. Laws covering hate crimes vary by state, but there are also federal hate crime laws in place, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. Not all states have hate crime laws, and not all state laws cover sexual orientation. A major step was taken toward protecting LGBTQ rights on a federal level in 2103, when President Obama reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA now covers non-discrimination protections for those who are members of "underserved populations" due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and race, among others.

African American Policy Forum. "A Primer on Intersectionality." http://www.intergroupresources.com/rc/Intersectionality%20primer%20-%20African%20American%20Policy%20Forum.pdf

Association for Women's Rights in Development. "Intersectionality: A Tool for Gender and Economic Justice." https://lgbtq.unc.edu/sites/lgbtq.unc.edu/files/documents/intersectionality_en.pdf

Buchanan, Wyatt. "Pride Parade Salute for an Unlikely Ally." SF Gate, June 23, 2006. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/SAN-FRANCISCO-Pride-parade-salute-for-an-2532708.php

Jarrett, Valerie. "No One Should Have to Live in Fear of Violence." White House Blog, March 7, 2013. https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/03/07/no-one-should-have-live-fear-violence

Marzullo, Michelle A. and Alyn J. Libman. "Hate Crimes and Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People". Human Rights Campaign Foundation, May 2009.

Mogul, Joey L. et al. Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.

Movement Advancement Project. "Hate Crime Laws." http://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps/hate_crime_laws

National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and HIV-Affected Hate Violence in 2013." http://www.avp.org/storage/documents/2013_ncavp_hvreport_final.pdf

NYPD.. "Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Liaison Unit." http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/html/community_affairs/lgbt.shtml

Ridgeway, Greg. "Analysis of Racial Disparities in the New York Police Department's Stop, Question and Frisk Practices." The Rand Corporation,2007. http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/downloads/pdf/public_information/TR534_FINALCompiled.pdf

Safe Space Network. "What Is a Safe Space?" http://safespacenetwork.tumblr.com/Safespace

Southern Poverty Law Center. "LGBT Rights." http://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/lgbt-rights?gclid=CMLm9q2Q7MQCFXQV7AodUywA1g

Stop Street Harassment. "National Street Harassment Report." http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/our-work/nationalstudy/

United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. "Combatting Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity." http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Discrimination/Pages/LGBT.aspx

U.S. Government Printing Office. "An Act to Reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act of 1994." http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-113s47enr/pdf/BILLS-113s47enr.pdf

US Human Rights Network and Rutgers Center for Women's Global Leadership. "Framing Questions on Intersectionality." http://www.ushrnetwork.org/sites/ushrnetwork.org/files/framing_questions_on_intersectionality_1.pdf

Media Reporting

Patreese Patreese. Photo: Out in the Night

Media reports affect public opinion and views and can therefore contribute to creating or dispelling biases. They may also influence how safe a person feels. Basic journalistic ethics state that journalists have a responsibility to be fair and accurate in their reporting, and to take care not to stereotype, oversimplify or misrepresent a story. Despite the fact that none of the women had any gang affiliations, their gang assault charge was caught by media outlets and misconstrued to the public. Bill O'Reilly aired a segment with Rod Wheeler called "Violent Lesbian Gangs a Growing Problem" that used the New Jersey Four case as an opening example of a purported national epidemic of lesbian gang violence. (O'Reilly and Wheeler later issued clarifications and apologies for "overstated" false assertions.)

Reporting about LGBTQ issues is a relatively recent phenomenon, having only started in the mid-1950s, when activists first began demanding more media coverage and fair reporting. Media coverage of violence against LGBTQ became more prominent after the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, which sparked demonstrations and protests across the country and launched a nationwide LGBTQ civil rights movement. The Stonewall Uprising took place in New York City's West Village, just a few blocks from where the IFC Theater is now located, and saw violent interactions between protesters and law enforcement. A number of precincts were involved, including the Sixth Precinct -- he same one that responded to the incident in Out in the Night. Media coverage also saw an increase following the high-profile 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a 20-year-old student from Wyoming who was beaten to death for being gay. However, coverage of violence against LGBTQ is still underreported or reported with problematic framing and language, especially in cases of violence against LGBTQ of color and/or low-economic status. According to Kim Pearson, a professor at the College of New Jersey, in the first month after Matthew Shepard was killed, there were 449 stories about him in major newspapers. By comparison, when Sakia Gunn, a young black lesbian from a low-income neighborhood, was murdered, only eight stories were written about her in major outlets in the first month. Similarly, when Dionte Greene, a 22-year-old gay black man from Kansas City, Mo., was killed in a low-income neighborhood, journalist Zach Stafford claimed that his case was written off as an act of violence common to low-income black neighborhoods, rather than reported as a hate crime and given significant media coverage.

GLAAD (originally the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) has released a reference guide for media outlets to help establish practices for fair and accurate reporting of LGBTQ issues. According to GLAAD, accurate media reporting is crucial because the media plays a significant role in shaping the community's and law enforcement's awareness of, understanding of and response to anti-LGBTQ violence. When harassment, violence and hate crimes are under-reported, community members, family, law enforcement personnel and even victims themselves are less likely to report crimes or seek proper investigations. Conversely, full and fair media coverage raises public awareness and motivates both law enforcement and community members to report crimes and conduct full and transparent investigations, creating more safe spaces.

American Experience: "Introduction: Stonewall Uprising."

Castañeda, Laura. News and Sexuality: Media Portraits of Diversity. Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage Publications, 2006.

Congressional Quarterly Staff. "Gay Gun Advocates Draw Bead on O'Reilly." The New York Times, July 16, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/cq/2007/07/16/cq_3090.html?pagewanted=print

GLAAD. "Hate Crimes." http://www.glaad.org/reference/hatecrimes

Katz, Jonathan Ned. "Stonewall Riot Police Reports." OurHistory.org

Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. "State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review 2014." http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/2014-implicit-bias.pdf

Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. "Understanding Implicit Bias." http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/

M, Sarah. "Ten Years After Matthew Shepard, Coverage of Hate Crimes Is Lacking." GLAAD, Oct. 9, 2008. http://www.glaad.org/2008/10/09/ten-years-after-matthew-shepard-coverage-of-hate-crimes-is-lacking

Moxley, Elle. "FBI Investigating Dionte Greene Murder for Possible Civil Rights Violation." KCUR, Dec. 16, 2014. http://kcur.org/post/fbi-investigating-dionte-greene-murder-possible-civil-rights-violation

The O'Reilly Factor. "Violent Lesbian Gangs a Growing Problem." June 22, 2007. http://www.alacrastore.com/storecontent/Voxant-TV-Transcripts/THE-O-REILLY-FACTOR-Violent-Lesbian-Gangs-a-Growing-Problem-2007fx062105cc256

Perception Institute. "The Science of Equality, Volume 1: Addressing Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety and Stereotype Threat in Education and Health Care." Nov. 2014. http://perception.org/app/uploads/2014/11/Science-of-Equality-111214_web.pdf

Society of Professional Journalists. "Code of Ethics." http://www.spj.org/pdf/spj-code-of-ethics.pdf