Produced by Mariska Hargitay, star of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and directed by Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir, I Am Evidence exposes the alarming trend of unsolved rape cases. The eye-opening documentary debuts Monday, April 16 (8:00-9:30 p.m. ET/PT), on HBO.
Despite the power of DNA to solve crimes, hundreds of thousands of rape kits, containing crucial DNA evidence, are currently languishing untested in police-evidence storage rooms across the country. Behind each one of these kits is a sexual-assault survivor waiting for justice to be served, and a perpetrator potentially evading prosecution.
I Am Evidence exposes the alarming trend of unsolved rape cases, revealing how a flawed system has historically mistreated sexual assault survivors and showing how victims, advocates and some forward-thinking law enforcement officials are challenging the status quo.
Spotlighting four resilient women in the Detroit, Cleveland and Los Angeles areas as they trace the fates of their kits and re-engage in the criminal justice process, this powerful film also follows survivors, advocates, prosecutors and police officials who are leading the charge to work through the backlog and hold perpetrators accountable. Putting a human face on this deplorable injustice and neglected issue, I Am Evidence is a timely call to action, asserting that survivors matter.
In 2009, Wayne County, Mich. Prosecutor Kym Worthy was shocked to uncover over 11,000 untested rape kits in a run-down police annex warehouse. Though the backlog was partially due to a lack of finances, reports showed that officers often didn’t believe the overwhelmingly black and poor victims. “They were violated in the most intimate of ways and nobody gave a damn,” laments Worthy.
Mariska Hargitay, a longtime advocate for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, offered her support to Worthy in her efforts to end the rape kit backlog in Detroit and the state of Michigan and bring justice to survivors. Hargitay’s role as Lieutenant Olivia Benson on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” had opened her eyes to these issues and inspired her to found the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004.
“I Am Evidence, literally. My name is on a box, on a shelf that’s never been tested,” says Ericka, one of thousands of women across the U.S. whose rape kits, containing DNA evidence that could identify their attackers, have never been opened. Ericka reported that she was raped on her 21st birthday, and after going through the arduous process of getting a rape kit done at a local hospital, she remembers going with her father to speak to a detective. The detective told Ericka and her father that nothing would happen with her kit, offering to show them thousands of untested kits waiting to be processed before hers.
Cleveland began the long and daunting process of working up cases on its backlogged kits in 2013. As Tim McGinty, former Cuyahoga County prosecutor in Cleveland says, “These rape kits are the best bargain in the history of law enforcement. Four hundred dollars a rape kit, and one in four results in an indictment. One in four of the four is a serial rapist. I’ve never seen an opportunity like this in law enforcement.”
Out of more than 5,000 tested, there have already been 1,935 DNA matches in CODIS, the national criminal database, but the challenge lies in prioritizing cases by urgency. Investigator Nicole DiSanto’s latest assignment is tracking an alleged three-time offender. (Serial rapists have made up one-third of the cases from the city’s backlogged kits.) DiSanto visits Danielle, a 1997 victim, who is easily able to identify her attacker in a photo lineup. DiSanto eventually finds the man in North Carolina, and news of his arrest gives Danielle closure. I Am Evidence reveals that he was convicted of her rape and kidnapping more than 20 years after the crime.
In Los Angeles, 12,000 untested kits were unearthed (and even more destroyed, due to the LAPD’s misjudgment of the statute of limitations). Among the kits opened was Helena’s, who was abducted at a car wash and raped at age 17 in 1996. Helena spent years trying to learn what happened to her rape kit, and eventually discovered, with the help of an ex-DA, that the DNA matched Charles Courtney, a long-distance truck driver who targeted women along his route. One of his other victims, Amberly, was abducted and raped in 1998 in Fairfield, Ohio.
In 2001, funding allowed police to test Amberly’s kit, which also identified Courtney, who was already in CODIS for a sex offense against his wife. He took a plea deal for 30 years in prison. Despite information provided by Fairfield police, however, Helena’s case fell through the cracks in LA and the statute of limitations expired. She was only able to obtain justice after the DA used a loophole to charge Courtney for money he’d taken from her.
Police are often woefully underprepared to deal with sexual assault victims, but even when perpetrators are arrested, many prosecutors don’t aggressively pursue these cases, which Worthy admits are some of the hardest to prosecute due to “victim blaming.” Now a mother of adopted daughters, Worthy was assaulted herself when she was in law school and wants the system to be better for her children.
So far, the results of Detroit’s testing have been far-reaching, linking to CODIS hits in 39 states and garnering nationwide attention. Still, it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of untested kits remain nationally. Ericka assumed her case would never be addressed? – ?until she met Worthy. Now Ericka says she feels “very free,” and urges women in her position to “press forward because I feel strong, stronger than I’ve ever known I could feel.”
I Am Evidence had its world premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and has since screened at AFI Docs Film Festival, the Hamptons International Film Festival and many other festivals. It won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Film at both the Provincetown and Traverse City festivals.
Producer Mariska Hargitay, who appears in the film, won an Emmy(R) and Golden Globe for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”; she also serves as an executive producer on the show and has directed episodes. After receiving numerous letters from survivors, she founded the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004. Its mission is to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse and its initiative, End the Backlog, aims to eliminate the backlog of hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in the U.S.