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Mariska Hargitay documentary on rape kit crisis puts survivors front and center

Wmc Features I Am Evidence 121918
Mariska Hargitay and prosecutor Kym Worthy speak at a press conference in a scene from the HBO film "I Am Evidence." Photo courtesy of HBO.

Almost 10 years ago, Detroit prosecutor Kym Worthy was shocked when more than 11,000 untested rape kits were discovered in an abandoned police warehouse. The DNA evidence from a rape kit — the samples of skin, hair, semen, and other physical evidence that is collected when a person reports a rape — can be used to identify an assailant. This horrifying discovery was not the first of its kind, but the media attention it drew led to a nationwide re-examination that revealed that hundreds of thousands of kits remained untested throughout the country. 

I Am Evidence, a documentary showing on HBO, HBO Go, and HBO Now, explores the rape kit crisis and foregrounds the experiences of rape survivors. It also exposes the pervasive misogyny at the root of the justice system’s neglect of sexual assault cases.

Mariska Hargitay, who plays a sex crime detective on the long-running television series Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, is the producer of the film, and Oscar- and two-time Emmy-nominated Trish Adlesic also produced and co-directed with Emmy winner Geeta Gandbhir.

Hargitay is the founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which advocates for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. She said she “wanted to create a film to educate and engage viewers as well as lawmakers, advocates, and survivors to join us in ending the rape kit backlog and ensure it never happens again. But what mattered most to me in making I Am Evidence was bringing survivor stories into the light and giving them the space to tell their truths. And not just of their assaults, but of the effect of a flawed criminal justice system that left their rape kit untested and their cases unresolved.”

I Am Evidence drives home how law enforcement officials have historically been a major roadblock in gathering evidence, testing rape kits, and prosecuting cases — particularly when the victim is a woman of color and/or poor. The film reveals police reports in which women victims are referred to as “hoes,” “bitches,” or “heiffers,” and the incidents they reported dismissed.

In Detroit, over 80 percent of the rape cases were brought by African American residents, most of whom were poor. Worthy said in the documentary, “The darker the pigment of your skin, your life seems to have less value in the criminal justice system.”

“That’s the American way,” added Patti Giggans, executive director of the antiviolence group Peace Over Violence, “this inequality within the criminal justice system when it comes to people of color or [different] economic classes. That is so endemic to our society that of course it’s going to have an impact with police and police investigations.”

The film features the stories of four women, and these survivors speak movingly of the impact of having cases that are caught up in a legal system that seems indifferent to their experiences. The title comes from one of those survivors, Ericka, who commented, “I am evidence, literally. My name is on a box, on a shelf that has never been tested.” Later she remarks, “I’m evidence that regardless to what happens to you, you can get through it. You can move past it, you can grow. You can change for the better.  I am evidence that there’s more to that box; there’s a human being there. This is not just a kit, this is a person.”

Adlesic said, “We, as a society, need to have a better understanding of the needs of survivors and give them a fair chance at justice.”

The hope in testing rape kits is that a DNA match will be found within CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System. Law enforcement agencies in every state submit DNA to CODIS so they can track criminals locally and across state lines.

Prosecutor Worthy has spearheaded a multi-agency law enforcement group dedicated to ending the backlog in Detroit and stopping it from happening again. Her work, along with that of activists in many cities, has inspired a national movement to test rape kits and bring prosecutions. 

 “A rape kit can bring justice,” said Worthy. It can, she points out:

  • identify an unknown perpetrator.
  • affirm a survivor’s account of their assault.
  • connect the suspect to other crime scenes — even those in other states and jurisdictions.
  • help solve other cases (roughly one-third of suspects are serial rapists).
  • prevent future rapes in cases where DNA results revealed a serial predator who would likely re-offend.
  • exonerate the innocent.

Worthy said that in the kit testing done by her task force, there were 833 serial rapists identified through CODIS hits across 40 states. “That’s just in one city, in one county, in one state,” she said.

The consequences of ignoring all those kits are severe, said Hargitay. As she testified before Congress: “For a survivor to come forward, to muster that courage and then have nothing done about it, what are we saying? Who are we protecting? We’re saying to the survivor, ‘You don’t matter.’ You’re giving rapists permission to do it again.”

In the film, survivors speak movingly about their dashed expectations of justice from the very first police contact through the courtroom experience — if the case gets that far. Instead of finding validation from police for being a violent crime victim, the women describe a struggle to even be believed.

As one woman comments, still visibly stunned years later, “I always was told, as a little girl growing up, ‘If someone touches you, you tell, you tell, you tell.’… and nothing happened.”

Another survivor said: “I just thought, given all of this information, they’re just going to go out in a week and catch him.”

And as Los Angeles survivor Helena tearfully asks, “What was so unimportant about me that someone couldn’t take a little bit of their time and help me find out” the identity of her perpetrator?

Fourteen years after Helena’s rape, the investigation was still stalled. Nevertheless, she kept trying to get information from law enforcement about the status of her case, to no avail. It was only when she received the help of a former district attorney that police showed her suspect photos. She immediately spotted her rapist. Helena later found out her kit had been processed a number of years prior to her advocates becoming involved. The DNA, it turned out, matched the man from the photos. Worse, the rapist attacked another woman during the time wasted as police failed to act. 

Even if a kit is tested, producing useful evidence, victims have to rely on the discretion of prosecutors to bring a case. In the film, Dr. Rebecca Campbell, professor of psychology at Michigan State, points out, “On average, 86 percent of sexual assaults that are reported to police are never referred to the prosecutor’s office even for consideration of charges.”

Helena concluded: “I’m not angry at [my rapist]. I have long moved past that feeling … terrible things happen to people, violence is learned, and I have compassion for him. I don’t have compassion for the system that made this OK because the system should be more accountable. The system should be better than a criminal.”

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More articles by Category: Arts and culture, Gender-based violence
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