Beyond Conviction

In Texas’ 46th Judicial District, District Attorney Staley Heatly takes unconventional steps to address the endemic problem of domestic violence in his community.

Beyond Conviction pub still
Independent Lens
Premiere Date
October 19, 2021
26:42 minutes
Funding Initiative
Short-Form Series and Special Projects
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Thorne Anderson

Thorne Anderson is a photojournalist, filmmaker, and the Mayborn Endowed Chair for Narrative & Multimedia Journalism at the University of North Texas. He is the co-author of Unembedded: Four International Photojournalists on the War in Iraq. He received the 2017 RTDNA National Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in video.

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The Film

When Staley Heatly was elected District Attorney of Texas’ 46th Judicial District, a predominantly rural district on the border with Oklahoma, he was carrying on a family legacy. But while he was still new to the job, a horrific crime changed Heatly’s sense of mission and set him on a new course to address the endemic problem of domestic violence in his community.  

In 2009, Heatly faced Tommy Castro, a serial abuser who had beaten his girlfriend’s five-year-old daughter to death. But the case nearly didn’t make it to court. Castro’s girlfriend was so terrified by his threats to the life of her remaining child that she herself falsely confessed to the murder. With the help of an expert in the psychology of domestic abuse, Heatly and the jury saw through it and Castro was convicted, but the case forced Heatly to confront his preconceptions about the dynamics of family violence and the role he could play in preventing it. He reformed the way he and other rural prosecutors convicted offenders, but he discovered that conviction alone was not enough to break the cycle of violence. 

Ultimately, Heatly was forced to expand his role as a community leader, forming a nonprofit organization to bridge the gaps between law enforcement, treatment specialists, and community activists. Like Heatly, Beyond Conviction ventures outside the conventional bounds of the law into a batterers’ group counseling session, on a domestic violence high-risk intervention team field mission to reach a woman at risk, and into an intimate counseling session where a novel eye-movement treatment (EMDR) is used to treat a survivor’s PTSD, revealing complexities both systemic and personal.