“You don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.” —Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969).
The late poet, activist Maya Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She was seven years old, and the “trauma of telling” stole her voice. She literally stopped talking for five years, believing that she was responsible for her rapist’s murder because she told on him.
As boldface names like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey continue to capture worldwide attention, for reasons that no longer have to do with their craft as film producers and performers, the airing of old and new wounds inflicted by sexual harassers, abusers and rapists have emboldened more and more women and men from all walks of life to speak out about their experiences via the #metoo movement.
If you’re a fan of NBC-TV’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and especially admire the advocacy role played by its star, Mariska (Olivia Benson) Hargitay, on and off camera, I encourage you to watch producer Hargitay’s powerful film exposé, I Am Evidence, debuting on HBO tonight, Monday, April 16, 2018, 8:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the days and weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.)
Ms. Hargitay’s 90-minute documentary, directed by Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir, shines an uncompromising light on the stockpiling of hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits across the country. Although assault survivors often face victim shaming and blaming trauma when they report their attacks, they are assured that their rape kits contain crucial DNA evidence that will pinpoint their rapists’ identities.
However, rape kits stored untested in dusty police storage rooms or remote warehouses provide no closure for these victims. As time passes, untested rape kits have also been unceremoniously discarded, sometimes before their statute of limitations expires. Survivors live with the knowledge that no one in the criminal justice system cares, and they grapple with the PTSD fear that their rapists, still at large, will strike them or others again.
I Am Evidence explores the back story of the rape kit debacle as it has played out for decades in Detroit, Cleveland and Los Angeles. We meet individual sexual assault survivors in those cities who had all but given up waiting for justice to be served, as well as their legal advocates and family members who address the deeply rooted racist and sexist attitudes that have traditionally fueled law enforcement’s dismissive handling of rape cases in general.
The filmmakers give ample time to law enforcement professionals who are attempting to turn the tide. “These rape kits are the best bargain in the history of law enforcement,” confirms Tim McGinty, former Cuyahoga County prosecutor in Cleveland. “One in four results in an indictment. One in four of the four is a serial rapist.”
When DNA results from tested rape kits are linked to CODIS, the national criminal database, law enforcement officers can identify serial offenders. I Am Evidence follows the trail of one serial perpetrator, a long distance truck driver who victimized women across state lines for decades (including his wife and two of the women profiled in this film living, respectively, in Los Angeles and Ohio). Had rape kits from these women (and potentially many other victims along his truck route) not been allowed to languish on the shelf for years, an untold number of women would have been saved from rape and, it is believed, probable murder.
Aside from her long tenure as Lt. Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU, Ms. Hargitay recalls the additional fuel that continues to fire her advocacy: the flood of letters she receives from sexual assault victims. She went on to found the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004, which not only aims to end the backlog of untested rape kits in the U.S. via its “End the Backlog” initiative, but also strives to change the dialogue surrounding sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.
I Am Evidence has been a fire starter on the film festival circuit and will serve as an important discussion catalyst going forward. The film is a timely program choice for audiences of criminal justice students and professionals focusing on women’s issues, racism and sexism, as well as counseling sessions for assault survivors and their families.
I Am Evidence debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, April 16, 2018, 8:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.) — Judith Trojan