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The Documentarians Exposing America’s Backlog of Unopened, Untested Rape Kits

‘I Am Evidence’ deftly examines all the ways that our justice system fails sexual-assault victims

In the new documentary I Am Evidence, which aired last night on HBO and is now available on demand, directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir delve into a sobering reality: Across the country, in cities like L.A., Cleveland and Detroit, hundreds of thousands of rape kits have gone unopened and untested for years, the victims of these crimes left unavenged and their perpetrators permitted to walk the streets.

That’s troubling enough, but it’s only the first layer of the film’s meticulous dissection of a justice system that repeatedly fails victims. Whether it’s cops who regard assault survivors as being at fault or emergency rooms that show preferential treatment to white victims over people of color, I Am Evidence plays like a cascade of grim reports about the country’s inability to confront sexual assault with the same kind of urgency that it tackles other violent crimes.

Adlesic and Gandbhir are filmmakers from different backgrounds working toward a common cause of educating the public about rape and assault. An Oscar-nominated producer of Gasland, about fracking’s catastrophic environmental effects, Aldesic was a longtime location manager on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. (The show’s star, Mariska Hargitay, has received thousands of letters from actual assault victims since the series began, and is the producer of I Am Evidence.) An Emmy-winning documentary editor, Gandbhir co-directed Prison Dogs (a.k.a. Puppies Behind Bars), about a program that tries to rehabilitate inmates and soldiers suffering from PTSD by pairing them with puppies. Together, Adlesic and Gandbhir have crafted a moving film that lets victims speak on camera about their experiences, detailing how they’ve tried to put their assaults behind them and how the system let them down.

Recently, the I Am Evidence filmmakers spoke to MEL about the revelations in their upsetting documentary. We also discussed how #MeToo might change the national conversation around assault, the unique stigmas that male victims face and why law enforcement’s supposed emphasis on being “tough on crime” has always turned a blind eye to women.

What’s so powerful about I Am Evidence is that it starts off with a clear hook — this massive backlog of unopened, untested rape kits — but the movie keeps finding more and more alarming failures in the justice system’s treatment of rape victims. From the outset, did you know all those layers were there?
I’d learned about the issue through working on Law & Order: SVU — there was an episode dedicated to addressing the issue. But there were discoveries in the making of the documentary that were of great concern — I knew there were backlogs, but I didn’t realize there were so many.

For the most part, the reasons were just lack of prioritizing this kind of violence against women. But when I started to look into Detroit, the issue of race and class came into play. I started to see that a lot of the cases were women who were either poor, African American or Latina. That was alarming and something we needed to take note of in addressing the way law enforcement was treating people.

Gandbhir: I was brought into the film by Trish, and I didn’t have any experience working on a project that dealt with these issues. I knew very little. For me, the entire process was revelatory. Obviously, there are things that I know, being a woman of color, about racism, classism and economic privilege — people with less privilege face more discrimination almost in every walk of life. But I didn’t know the details.

There’s this strong disconnect while watching the film: For years, politicians have run on the idea of being “tough on crime,” but when it comes to sexual assault, there seems to be little urgency. Why is that?
When you say “tough on crime,” I think it depends on what crime it is — and what the priorities are for that particular jurisdiction in terms of budgeting and community concerns. Murder is always the first concern, and then I’ve had people say to me, “Well, computer fraud and all these other things are much more important than [rape].” There are good intentions, but women [just] weren’t believed: “They put themselves in these situations.” Or: “We can’t waste tax dollars and put our resources into this when it was consensual sex or just a misunderstanding.” I think that was really why the backlog accrued. In Cleveland, [Attorney General] Mike DeWine [who’s currently running for Ohio governor] was tough on crime, but this [backlog] was something that he didn’t realize was happening. When he became aware of it, he fully funded it.

[There’s] value in these kits and testing them. It’s a bipartisan issue — it’s a public safety issue when one in four women, and one in six men, are impacted by this violence. If it’s not yourself, it’s someone you know and love. I think we’re going to see improvement in the way in which law enforcement sees this kind of violence.

Gandbhir: This is a problem that spans decades. I think [Wayne County Prosecutor] Kym Worthy sums it up well in the film: “No one gives a damn about women in this country.” That comes directly from her experience in working in law enforcement and the judicial system for the amount of time that she has. It’s about priority — issues that affect women have always been seen, on multiple fronts, as being a low priority. That’s something we’re trying to change the narrative of.

You hold prosecutors’ feet to the fire really well in I Am Evidence, deservedly so. But I also wondered how much blame goes to juries — do prosecutors resist bringing these cases forward because they don’t think juries will believe the victims?
As a society we need to better understand how we’ve historically treated this crime and to become educated. One of the struggles in making the film was learning about the nature of acquaintance assault. Stranger assault is readily supported and investigated, but when it becomes this question of “he said/she said,” what we need to do is define what “acquaintance” means. When you test a kit, you can confirm whether or not the perpetrator had priors — it can confirm a survivor’s account, which is helpful in strengthening the case. That’s an important revelation for prosecutors — testing kits makes a tremendous difference in their ability to actually prosecute.

Gandbhir: The stigma that goes along with sexual assault has existed in our culture since time began. We live in a patriarchal culture where women are blamed for what happens to them. Kym Worthy makes an incredible point in the film where she talks about the fact that no one blames a robbery victim in the way that [people] blame a victim of sexual assault. It’s our job to work to change this culture and to make sure that women have a voice — that there isn’t this stigma attached to [sexual assault] — so that juries go into the court with a different mindset.

Anybody who grows up going to school in America learns that, in this country, the accused has a presumption of innocence — but that presumption has been challenged, in a way, by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, which have advocated the importance of believing women who say they’ve been assaulted. I’m curious how you feel about that tension as it plays out in I Am Evidence — but also how you see these movements impacting our judicial system.
The attention on the issues women are facing has been elevated. I applaud the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements because they’re following through on holding people accountable for their wrongdoing — outing [assaulters] publicly but [also] following up with governors and legislators [to say], “If you’re not going to investigate this, follow-up and do the right thing, we’re going to continue to apply pressure forcefully and smartly.”

[These movements] send such a firm message that this [predatory] behavior is no longer acceptable — and if you do continue with bad behavior, we will hold you accountable and it will affect your career and your livelihood. When people [impact] the bank accounts, that’s when things are going to change too, because people are all about the money.

Gandbhir: Everyone — all of us who are part of this #MeToo movement — believe in due process. But the judicial system has always been biased against women, and against victims and survivors. The pendulum needs to swing in the other direction. We need to have a watchdog movement so that we can get to an equal playing field so victims’ voices can be heard.

For good reason, the film features only female victims telling their stories. Trish, you cited the statistics on male rape victims earlier — did you approach any assaulted men to be interviewed? It seems like they face their own collection of stigmas.
We were in discussion with someone in Detroit [who had been assaulted], and I think for men the shame and stigma can be even worse: “How could you have been raped?” But all people are vulnerable [when] someone comes up with a weapon and threatens you. I have a [male] relative who was sexually assaulted, and it was at a time when there wasn’t any support for this kind of violence, let alone [for] a man.

Part of this work is to support male victims because of this stigmatization. It’s not that you weren’t strong enough to get your attacker off of you — or making homophobic jokes about it. It’s a layer of the consciousness-raising we’re trying to do.

Ultimately, the person we were in touch with wasn’t ready to come forward, but he supported the efforts we were making around the film.

Gandbhir: Kym Worthy says that the majority of the rape kits are attached to women — that speaks to who actually goes to get a rape kit done and who reports. That’s something else that needs to be discussed: For every rape kit, there are countless survivors who haven’t done one for various reasons. Usually it’s shame, stigma, fear, mistrust of the system — there are so many reasons, and a lot of men fall into that category. By eradicating this stigma, hopefully more men will come forward and get a kit done and report the crime that was committed against them.

I was surprised by the fact that so many rapists aren’t one-time offenders. If you’re a rapist, the odds are good that you’re a serial rapist.
Unfortunately, the majority of sexual predators are serial in nature — and they cross state lines as you saw exemplified [in I Am Evidence]. By testing more than 10,000 kits they had discovered [in Detroit], they found more than 800 serial rapists in one city, in one jurisdiction in the U.S., affecting [rape cases in] over 40 states. It really tells you something about the findings.

This also highlights how important it is to get kits tested quickly. As you see in the film, had [L.A. resident] Helena [Lazaro]’s kit been tested in a timely manner, then [Ohio resident] Amberly [Lakes] might not have gone through what she went through — their common perpetrator, ideally, would’ve been caught [sooner].

Gandbhir: Also, we learned that [these crimes] tend to escalate. Someone can start with a break-in and then, perhaps, a sexual assault. But the longer that someone goes unchecked and uncaught, the more they think they can get away with. That seems to be a pattern, so the urgency of [testing kits] can’t be expressed enough.

I Am Evidence focuses largely on big cities and their backlog of untested rape kits. What about small towns? Are the problems similar?
From the research and the data, [the problem] is everywhere. When we talk about economic inabilities, we have to examine whether or not this is made a priority in [communities’] annual budgeting. Historically, they weren’t prioritizing [this kind of] violence, so they’d say, “We didn’t have the money to test,” but the cost of testing kits has drastically come down in the last 10 years. There’s also the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative: The federal government provides $45 million annually to jurisdictions that apply for grants. So there’s no excuse at this point for the complaint that you don’t have money, because you can apply and get the money.

Gandbhir: The only other thing I’d add is that there’s a lack of education around this — both for survivors and for people who are meant to support the survivors. For example, there were hospitals that were charging survivors for their rape kits. That’s the sort of thing we have to make sure doesn’t happen again.