It was 10 years ago that the New Jersey Four’s night went from a fun evening out with friends to a fight for their lives.
Since then, they’ve sat through a grueling trial, served time in prison, appealed their sentences and are working to get back to normal life — but that night a decade ago is never far from their thoughts.
“People are still dying. My LGBT community is still at risk,” said Renata Hill, one of the New Jersey Four. “The world is still not accepting us … 10 years ago it was a group of 7 females who defended themselves and we were blessed to walk away from that situation alive. Ten years later, 49 people are gone and 50 are injured [in Orlando].”
In August 2006, a group of seven black, lesbian women planned a day in New York City to shop and bar hop. In their late teens to mid-20s, the New Jersey residents were excited about the fun to come. As they walked in the wee hours of the morning in front of a Greenwich Village movie theater, a man hawking DVDs called out to them.
Dwayne Buckle claims he told one of girls, Patreese Johnson, she was pretty and the group immediately attacked him. The women though tell a very different story.
Johnson, who was 19 at the time, said that he pointed to her crotch and said “I want that.” When she told him she was a lesbian, he got aggressive, the women recall, and would not leave them alone.
“He started calling us dyke bitches, lesbian bitches, I’ll fuck you straight — every time we tried to walk away, he kept on pursuing us and pursuing us,” Hill said in a documentary, “Out in the Night” about the case.
Then, the women said he got violent. He lunged at Hill, grabbing her throat, so Johnson took out a kitchen knife she kept in her purse and stabbed him in the abdomen. Some bystanders jumped into the fight, and by the end of the night all seven women were arrested.
“If we would have chosen to call 911 instead of defending ourselves, one of us would be dead,” Hill said.
The next day, the media was less than sympathetic. Local headlines called them “killer lesbians,” a “wolf pack,” and “girls gone wilding.” Bill O’Reilly cited the incident in a segment about lesbian gangs running rampant throughout the country.
Buckle told the New York Times he was “the victim of a hate crime against a straight man.”
“I was embarrassed,” Johnson said about seeing the media coverage. “[I was] in disbelief in how the media was portraying us. It opened my eyes to journalism that they were just selling stories, it didn’t matter what the true story was, as long as they were selling papers. It just made me feel bad. They abused my character, they said things I know I wasn’t. I didn’t know how to cope with that as a teenager.”
Of the seven women, three decided to take a plea deal and plead guilty, receiving six months in jail and six years on probation. Hill, Johnson, Venice Brown and Terrain Dandridge opted to go to trial — they became known as the New Jersey Four.
“I was upset at first because I felt like we stood a better chance of fighting it with all seven of us,” Hill said of the other three women. “It took some time for me to understand maybe they just didn’t have the fight in them and I had to respect that. Not everybody wants to go through that whole court process and with them dehumanizing us the way the media and the court did. I had to respect it. Everybody has their own decision and I decide I wanted to fight it.”
After almost one year, with the defense relying on the surveillance video and eyewitness accounts, they were tried by an all-white jury of 10 women and two men and found guilty of gang assault; Johnson was also charged with attempted murder for the stabbing. They deliberated for five hours, according to the New York Times.
Each woman received a different sentence, with Dandridge the shortest at three-and-a-half years and Johnson the longest at 11 years. According to news reports, the judge made it very clear throughout the trial that he thought the women were guilty.
In a New York Times article, the writer noted that Johnson was less than 5-feet-tall and weighed less than 100 pounds.
“I truly believed that we were defending ourselves that night,” Johnson said. “I took it to trial because you’ve got to prove your innocence. I felt there was enough evidence to prove we were defending ourselves … which left me confused after the trial when they found us guilty as well.”
Most devastating was the fact that Brown had an infant child and Hill a 5-year-old son they would have to leave behind as they served time.
On the outside looking in, a local filmmaker named Blair Dorosh-Walther was closely following the case and helped with fundraising for the women and participating in letter-writing campaigns. She knew their story needed to be told, but being a white woman, she didn’t think it was appropriate for her to be the one to do it.
In 2008, a year after the New Jersey Four were sentenced to prison and were filing appeals, Dorosh-Walther saw the media coverage had died down.
“It was one of those stories that could not get out of my head. I was so outraged and passionate about it, so I started rethinking about it as a documentary and directing it,” she said.
The filmmaker started out slow, reaching out to the women, visiting them in prison and meeting their family members and attorneys to gauge their interest in participating in the film. A lot of the early process was also just getting to know each other and getting comfortable. Over the next seven years, she followed their cases, from appeals to retrials and early releases to enrolling in school, and moving forward.
In 2013, she released “Out in the Night.”
“They’re incredibly resilient and have such great humility and humor and that was also really refreshing,” Dorosh-Walther said. “They were all just so clear on what happened and also how it was connected to other parts of their life.”
The New Jersey Four and Dorosh-Walthers have traveled the country for film screenings, followed by Q&As, vulnerable moments.
“They’re reliving it every time they go out. That can also be incredibly draining. Empowering as well, but there was definitely an arc of it being more draining,” Dorosh-Walthers said.
Today, Johnson is in school and also continues her work as a poet and activist, namely speaking with youth.
“You think you’re having fun, it can turn ugly,” she said, looking back. “We’re still in danger. It’s not safe to be who we are, but it’s OK to be who we are and stand up for who we are and live in our truth. It’s important to be who you are.”
Today, Hill is studying to be a social worker and lives in her own apartment with her now 15-year-old son.
“People ask me, do I regret what happened? Absolutely I do not,” Hill said. “We all have a right to defend our bodies.”
The New Jersey Four
Venice Brown was sentenced to five years in prison with four years of post-release supervision. She was released early in 2008 after an appeal and plea deal.
Terrain Dandridge was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison and four years post-release supervision. Her conviction was overturned in 2008 and she was released.
Renata Hill was sentenced to eight years in prison and five years of post-release supervision. After she filed for an appeal, she was released in 2010.
Patreese Johnson was sentenced to 11 years in prison with five years of post-release supervision. After her appeal, her sentence was reduced to eight. She was released in 2013.