Mariska Hargitay plays an investigator on “Law & Order: SVU,” however, her TV role carried over to the real world, when she received thousands of letters from real people — victims of sexual crimes. They wrote to her with their stories, saying “I’ve never told anyone this before.” She was moved to take action when she realized what a monumental problem this is in our country.
Sexual assault is overlooked in the United States and this issue is highlighted but the hundreds of thousands of rape kits that go untested in our country. Each one is an unresolved assault case containing potentially crucial DNA evidence that could solve and prevent crimes. According to the Department of Justice, an American is sexually assaulted every two minutes, and rape cases lead to conviction less than 2 percent of the time. Clearly, something has to change.
Hargitay began working with Kym Worthy, a prosecutor who has been tackling the problem of sexual assault in Detroit. Worthy’s work is highlighted in “I AM EVIDENCE,” a documentary which made its world premier at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival recently.
Worthy is a prosecutor who has made it her goal to test and follow up on the 11,000 untested sexual assault kits that were found in a Detroit Police Department warehouse. There have been many cases like this across the country – hundreds of thousands of rape kits that have been administered and then set aside, ignored or even destroyed. In places like Detroit, they were literally abandoned in a warehouse with “open windows” and “birds flying through.”
Worthy recognizes that each kit has the potential to bring justice to the rape victims (even if the statue of limitations has passed), prevent future assaults and victims, as well as exonerate the innocent or those who may have been wrongfully convicted.
These untested rape kits illustrate how hard it is to report sexual assault: it takes courage to overcome the stigma and come forward as a victim, the reporting process is uncomfortable, drawn out, and sometimes harmful — and after all that, chances are nothing will be done to stop this from happening again.
One survivor in the film says she went to the police station with her father after she was raped. Her dad asked “How long does it take to catch him?” and the officer told them, “I’m going to be honest. Nothing is going to happen.”
The overwhelming number of backlogged rape kits show that these are not just anecdotes, but an overall trend that ignores these crimes and a lack of motivation in solving and decreasing rapes. Worthy says “Nobody gives a damn about women in this country.”
The film also portrays how women of color, immigrants and poor women disproportionally suffer in this process. One social worker in Detroit says that she has continually seen black women ignored or cast aside. She says law enforcement doesn’t believe them when they report their assault and sees them as “not human enough to be rape-able.”
Overall, women are not believed when reporting sexual crimes and are often blamed. The film shows police reports that call the women reporting the crime “bitches” and “whores.” If an officer doesn’t believe you, they are even less likely to proceed with your case. When one survivor in the film pushed law enforcement on why her rape kit wasn’t tested, she was stonewalled. She said, “I can’t understand why I was so unimportant.”
The film asks how can law enforcement earn back the trust of these victims and these marginalized communities.
Programs and task forces have since been created to go through the backlogs, and they’re seeing a lot of success. There is a huge benefit to public safety, according to one member of one of these task forces. Most rapists are linked to multiple crimes — sometimes interpersonal violence, child abuse, even murder — not just the one assault. Many of these offenders are serial rapists who won’t stop until they get caught. In Worthy’s 11,000 Detroit cases, her team has found over 770 serial rapists. Getting one rapist off the street prevents many more rapes and saves many more potential victims.
Rachel Dissell, a Cleveland reporter who has covered this problem said, “Most men are not rapists, but the ones who are perpetrate again and again and again.”
Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir, the film’s directors, came out after the showing for an audience Q&A. They discussed how they wanted to make a “survivor-centric film.” One audience member asked what we can do as viewers to help stop this problem. The filmmakers recommended going to iamevidencethemovie.com and endthebacklog.org to educate yourself and others on this topic and to have a greater national conversation on this issue.
Our culture of misogyny allows law enforcement to put these crimes aside and ignore the problem and its victims. One survivor featured in the documentary spoke about her perpetrator who was recently convicted and put in prison:
“I have compassion for him. I don’t have compassion for the system that made this ok. The system should be better than a criminal.”
Images courtesy of I AM EVIDENCE.
See more of our 2017 Tribeca Film Festival coverage.
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