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May 23, 2019

Evidence in Waiting

Mariska Hargitay takes on the overwhelming backlog of rape kits in America.

By: 
Libby Slate


When a woman is raped and reports the crime to the police, she goes to a hospital so that evidence may be collected for her rape kit: DNA samples that are checked against the national Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), maintained by the FBI, to see if there are any matches with perpetrators already in the system.

At the hospital, she sheds her clothes onto a large sheet of paper on the floor, to protect any evidence that may still be on her garments. She submits to an uncomfortable, invasive physical exam which includes taking DNA swabs from her body orifices – mouth and private parts; scraping material from under her fingernails and plucking her pubic hair. She answers a multitude of questions. The process takes four to six hours.

And after she has undergone the twin traumas of rape and evidence-gathering, it's a natural assumption, even a comfort, that the police will then move to catch the perpetrator. As one woman says, "They did a rape kit on me. I felt, my body was a crime scene. I've given them all of this information. They're just going to go out in a week and catch him."

As it turns out, though, what often happens instead is... nothing. The rape kits are sent to storage, where they can stay for years, not opened, much less tested, while the perpetrator is free to attack again. Some kits remain stored so long that they outlast the statute of limitations for rape prosecution.

Meanwhile, victims are left without justice, often living in fear that their attackers are still on the streets.

The documentary I Am Evidence, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 and aired on HBO in 2018, takes an uncompromising look at this shocking situation; at one point it was estimated that there were more than 400,000 untested rape kits in the United States.

The program is the inspiration of Mariska Hargitay, who since 1999 has played NYPD detective-now-lieutenant Olivia Benson on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. After receiving thousands of letters from viewers disclosing their sexual assaults, many for the first time, she created the Joyful Heart Foundation for victim advocacy, and later learned about the untested rape kits.

Hargitay is a producer of the film and appears in it, but this is no star vehicle. The filmmakers, headed by directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir, interviewed numerous survivors whose rape kits went untested, and chose four to spotlight: Ericka in Detroit, Amberly and Danielle in Cleveland and Helena in Los Angeles.

Helena and Amberly are connected: They were raped by the same long-distance truck driver. Had Helena's rape kit been tested in a timely manner, the rapist would not have been out in the world a few years later to attack Amberly, who became addicted to drugs after her assault.

It took Helena 14 years for her kit to be tested, through a fierce determination that saw her reaching out to advocates high on the law-enforcement ladder.  By then the statute of limitations had run out; the rapist was prosecuted only through a loophole involving his theft of $20 from Helena.

Danielle's rape had occurred in 1997. When an investigator with evidence from the newly tested rape kit tracks her down at her last known address and shows her photos of possible perpetrators, she instantly and correctly identifies the man.

Ericka was raped on her 21st birthday. She was told by police then not to expect any testing. "I am evidence, literally," she says. "My name is on a box on a shelf, that has never been tested." By the end of the film, she gathers her family and tells them for the first time about her rape nearly 12 years earlier. Fortunately, they're supportive.

A formidable presence in the film is Kym Worthy, Wayne County (Michigan) prosecutor, whom Hargitay met in 2010 when both were testifying on Capitol Hill about the rape kits.

After a member of Worthy's staff had discovered more than 11,000 untested rape kits in an abandoned Detroit warehouse that they didn't even know existed, Worthy vowed to get every kit processed. The results revealed some startling statistics: there were matches to crimes in 39 other states, and overall, more than 770 serial rapists were involved. And that was the outcome just in one city.

Worthy has some startling personal news: she herself was sexually assaulted, when she was a law student. The disclosure took the filmmakers by surprise.

Interviews with law enforcement members, a Cleveland newspaper reporter and politicians reveal, for the most part, people who do want to help now that they're aware of the problem.

But a disturbing pattern also emerges. Many times, as documented by the police reports shown on camera, officers taking victims' statements made by women of color write disparaging remarks about the women, calling them whores, hoes and "heffers,"  (heifers), blaming their clothing for the rape or disbelieving that the rape even occurred.

It's no wonder that rape kit testing is a low priority and that rape prosecution and conviction statistics are dismal.

As Hargitay says in her Congressional testimony: "For a survivor to come forward about it, to muster that courage, and for then to have nothing done, what are we saying? Who are we protecting? We're saying, 'You don't matter.'"

For its attempt to spotlight and correct a crucial societal wrong, I Am Evidence is a worthy recipient of the 2019 Television Academy Honors.

I Am Evidence is available on demand, on HBO Go and HBO Now, and is also available to be screened in local communities.


For the award presentation and acceptance video, click here.

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