Devoted fans of the popular cop show can probably recite it in their sleep: “In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.”
Those stories on Law & Order: SVU are fiction (although they frequently echo tabloid headlines), but these statistics are not: Every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. One out of six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. But only forty percent of these crimes will be reported. Only six percent of rapists spend a day in jail.
These devastating numbers are at the very soul of a new documentary that offers an inside look at a real-life SVU — the sex crimes prosecution unit of the New York District Attorney's office, the first of its kind in the country. Produced by Lisa F. Jackson, Sex Crimes Unit premieres on HBO, Monday, June 20, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, and will be repeated throughout the rest of the month and into July. Look for it.
In the interest of full disclosure, Lisa is a longtime friend with whom I began in the television business in Washington, DC, back in the days when 24-hour cable news cycles, American Idol and video on demand weren't even glints in the narrowed eyes of Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about her film, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, a brutal and frank verite examination of the African civil war that has been the deadliest conflict since World War II, with as many as 5.4 million killed and more than 250,000 women and children raped. Herself a rape survivor, she bravely trekked into the heart of the fighting to tell the tale. Now with Sex Crimes Unit, Lisa presents a story she has been longing to bring to the screen for the last fifteen years.
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau authorized the unit's formation in 1974 with the now famous crime novelist and former prosecutor Linda Fairstein as its first chief. “When I came to the practice of law in 1972, the laws in America, all over this country, were so archaic that the overwhelming number of sexual assault cases were not even able to get into a court of law,” Fairstein notes in the documentary. “As recently as 20 years ago, marital rape was not a crime. There was no such thing as stalking, there was no DNA, there was no science to say she's right or she's wrong about identifying her attacker, acquaintance rapes simply weren't prosecuted almost anywhere in America.”
Today, Lisa Friel heads the unit. Deeply street smart and an expert in the law (despite, to my aging eyes at least, a more than passing resemblance to Michele Bachmann), she oversees 40 senior assistant DA's with, on any given day, more than 300 pending cases. In the course of filming, these include a nightclub abduction caught on surveillance tape, the perpetrator brazenly carrying the helplessly inebriated victim out of the joint with no one lifting a finger to stop him; a livery cab driver turned predator and the difficult case of a prostitute turned rape victim whose quick thinking and courage results in a twelve year sentence for her attacker. “I am so happy [the jury] saw me as a person, not a prostitute,” she tells assistant DA Coleen Balbert. “Nobody deserves to be raped,” Lisa Friel says, “no matter who they are and what they do.”
But at the program's center is the remarkable story of Natasha Alexenko. On August 6, 1993, the then-20-year-old Canadian college student was raped and sodomized at gunpoint in the bicycle storage area of her uptown Manhattan apartment building. Her assailant got away.
At the time, a rape kit was administered and DNA evidence collected but it sat on a shelf, untested, for nine and a half years. “It was sealed and nothing happened to it,” Assistant DA Melissa Mourges recalls. “And that happened with 17,000 kits around the city… the seals were never broken. But then in 2000, two things happened that were very big for New York City and very big for the victims of these kind of crimes. One was that our medical examiner's office which does all of the DNA testing for the five boroughs joined CODIS [Combined DNA Index System], the data bank… so now we had profiles of known individuals that you could compare crime scene evidence to.”
The second was District Attorney Morgenthau's establishing a cold case investigative operation within the sex crimes unit and creating a “John Doe” indictment; in the absence of a suspect, his DNA could be indicted, slamming the brakes on the statute of limitations.
The cold case unit reopened the Natasha Alexenko investigation nearly ten years after she was raped. The DNA of her assailant was entered into CODIS. Four years later, they got a hit. A suspect was arrested and prosecuted.
“There was a part of me that absolutely felt that it would be cathartic to go through the process of a trial,” Alexenko says, “and there was a part of me that thought there's just no way, I don't want to do this.” On the stand, she collapses — “It was almost like this was the physical embodiment of all of the fear and all of the guilt and all of the sadness,” a friend says — but recovers and performs what she calls her “karmic duty to get up there and keep this guy from ever doing this again to anyone else.”
“The trial,” Assistant DA Mourges says, “is really… the moment when the victim takes all the power back, all the power that he wielded over her, all the shame, all the terror. And now she holds all that power. She holds the power over him, and that is a transcendent moment.” Her attacker was convicted, with a maximum release date of 2057.
This week, as press attention centered on whether the New York State Senate would pass legislation allowing gay marriage, that same body passed a bill that expands the state's DNA database to require a sample from all those convicted of felonies and misdemeanors (up to now, only 46% of penal law crimes have been eligible).
The New York Civil Liberties Union is opposed. “On Law & Order or CSI, DNA is infallible. Unfortunately, in the real world, things aren't so simple; the possibility for error, fraud and abuse exists at every step from the moment a DNA sample is collected,” NYCLU Legislative Director Robert Perry said. “…The science and sophistication have advanced, and yet lawmakers have not even begun to think about what's required in terms of regulatory oversight and quality assurance standards that are required to ensure the integrity of the databank and the use of forensic DNA evidence.”
Meanwhile, Natasha Alexenko has founded Natasha's Justice Project, raising money to end the backlog of rape kits in America. While a minority of law enforcement jurisdictions in the United States — among them, New York City, Los Angeles, and the state of Illinois — require that every rape kit booked into police evidence is sent to a crime laboratory and tested for DNA, the vast majority do not. According to the website endthebacklog.org, “Experts in the federal government estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the United States.” With increasing cuts in law enforcement budgets, outside assistance from groups like Alexenko's may be the only alternative.
Toward the end of Sex Crimes Unit, she tells Lisa Jackson, “You have a choice in life of how to take things. Believe me, I had moments of feeling sorry for myself and I guess you can do that, choose to go that route, or you can choose to not be the victim. I guess if you gain strength from it and if you come out of it with something more then you won, then you were never the victim.”