Inside The Real SVU: Lisa Jackson’s “Sex Crimes Unit”

If you’re a fan of Law & Order SVU, and there are millions of us, you’ll appreciate Lisa F. Jackson’s documentary “Sex Crimes Unit.” Premiering June 20 on HBO, Jackson’s film offers us a behind-the-scenes look at New York City’ sex crimes prosecution unit–the first of its kind in the country.

In 1974, former Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau established the Manhattan Sex Crimes Unit to focus on sexual assault crimes, because, as he tells Jackson,

When somebody’s burglarized or robbed, they get over it. [But when they’re raped], I don’t think they ever get over it. So they’re entitled to special consideration in the criminal justice system.

This isn’t Jackson’s first foray into the subject of rape: her last film, “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo” shines a light on the fate of women and girls subjected to sexual violence as a weapon of war. In the film, she shared her own story of being gang raped because “it happens to women everywhere,” she said.

The prosecutors Jackson profiles are every bit as dedicated and passionate as their fictional television counterparts. Today, the Sex Crime Unit, headed by Lisa Friel, has over 40 senior Assistant District Attorneys and more than 300 cases pending on any given day. Jackson takes us to the early days of the office when Morgenthau and Linda Fairstein, the unit’s first chief (and now the best-selling author of a series of crime novels), were breaking new ground for prosecutors everywhere. “There was no model for this work anywhere in America,” says Fairstein. “We were teaching ourselves how to do this.”

When they set up shop, the state of New York didn’t recognize marital rape as a crime, a victim’s account of the crime had to be corroborated [PDF] by an eyewitness and her sexual history was often used to undermine her complaint. There was a statute of limitations (since circumvented in sexual assault cases as a result of the “John Doe” indictment) and no one knew about DNA.

Now we all know about DNA, but in 2000, when New York’s Medical Examiner’s office joined the national DNA database CODIS, Morgenthau was one of the first district attorneys in the country to see its potential in solving rape cases. Evidence in 17,000 sex crimes cases sat on shelves, untested until there was a suspect. Knowing many of those cases wouldn’t be solved before the statue of limitations expired, Morgenthau created a Cold Case Unit to test or retest rape kits whose statutes were almost up. Instead of indicting a suspect, he’d indict the criminal’s DNA. Such a John Doe indictment meant that “if that person is subsequently picked up, he could be prosecuted,” said Morgenthau.

One John Doe indictment brought justice to a rape victim 15 years after the fact. Almost ten years after she was raped at gunpoint, Natasha Alexenko got a phone call that changed her life. The attorneys from the Cold Case Unit wanted her to testify before a Grand Jury in order to get a John Doe indictment on her attacker’s DNA. It was an act of faith on her part, and she agreed to it. Her rape kit was examined, leading to a link to a suspect catalogued in the CODIS DNA database four years later.  Her attacker was found guilty on all counts. “Knowing he’s away–I feel vindicated,” said Alexenko.

“Those individuals in the Sex Crime Unit were … truly altruistic,” she said. “They are some of the best lawyers in the country and they really care about the victims. You can’t fake that.”

That altruism and dedication comes through in the film. Jackson’s camera captures their day-to-day interactions in their strategy meetings, crime scene visits and lunches at the conference table . In the case of a prostitute who was raped, the care and compassion of the attorneys is evident as they prepare for trial and call the client to tell her the verdict. Their empathy and concern for the victims shows, too, when they discuss cases for which they have no evidence and can’t prosecute.

Their advocacy for victims also leads them to educate. Lisa Friel conducted a training session for sexual assault forensic examiners and told them, “Please don’t use the word alleged. Alleged is a legal word,” she tells them. “If I walk into a hospital saying I have a stomach ache, you are not going to write in your medical record she alleges she had stomach pain.”

Alexenko, the victim whose case was solved 15 years later, felt it was her “karmic duty to help other people.” She started Natasha’s Justice Project,  an organization to empower provide financial support for the processing of rape kits, many of which still lie untested in cities around the country.

Jackson and Alexenko bonded in the process of making the film. “We are part of a survivors’ brigade that will never have a parade,” said Jackson. “My rapists were never caught so I never saw how justice was rendered.” Making this film, “I got to see the dedication and humanity of the people who work day in and day out on this crime.”

Thanks to Lisa F. Jackson, you’ll get to see it. You can catch “Sex Crimes Unit” on Monday, June 20 on HBO or at the L.A. Film Fest this week.

Photo from Wikimedia under Creative Commons 3.0.


  1. Great article – thanks!

  2. Amanda J says:

    I’m a big Law and Order SVU fan- so cool to read about the REAL thing though!

  3. Carolyn Byerly says:

    I have never been a fan of the SVU program. Though a man (Morgenthau) may have established the first sex crimes unit in NYC, it was feminists working in the anti-rape movement all across this country in the 1970s that pressured police departments to set up what WE called “special victims units.” Our crisis centers worked diligently with police in these units, developing printed materials for victims, accompanying victims to police offices to give statements, telling victims their rights, and proceeding through the court process to support victims when assailants were caught and prosecuted. I and many of my rape crisis colleagues got up at all hours to provide briefings to police when their shifts changed, and we reshaped the ways that police units treated victims, families and assailants. None of this has ever been depicted on SVU to my knowledge. I stopped watching the show after one episode sexualized a child victim, after Olivia was stalked for several episodes and then brutally attacked, and after a number of other things that dismissed the reality of sex crimes. While anti-rape feminists pushed hard for better coverage in the media of these crimes, seeing them turned to lurid entertainment in so many programs really bothers me.

    • Jessica Souza says:

      The SVU television show has actually GREATLY opened the eyes of many people over the past 14 years to rape being viewed as a terrible crime.
      There has to be a balance on television between watchability and reality. Thousands and thousands of victims tune into the show because while they have not reported the crime that happened to them, the show literally has helped them heal. Mariska Hargitay, who plays Olivia, started the Joyful Heart Foundation and receives hundreds of letters from victims who have never opened up about the abuse until they watched the show.
      I believe 100% that a TV show that provides THAT kind of amazing benefit to the community is absolutely a blessing…not “lurid entertainment.”
      It sounds like you’re a little bitter about not getting credit for there being an official Sex Crimes Unit. How about being thankful that there is?

  4. I will say right up front that I have never watched L&O or CSI or any of those crime shows. But I don’t really understand why people want to watch special victims and crime scene shows as entertainment. I can get enough horrorshow just opening the newspaper, without making a point to tune in to a murders and beatings, serial rapists’ criminal minds, the last minutes of a murder victim’s life, the disappearance of children– I just don’t get the the whole crime scene investigations TV show thing.


    • Nom De Guerre says:

      Oh, I don’t know for sure, but I think it may be a similar attraction as what I had to the Hardy Boys books as a kid. Certainly more violent/graphic, but I think what holds my attention is trying to determine/guess the outcomes before revealed in the show. And unlike “newspapers”, I can convince myself that what I’m seeing didn’t actually happen.

    • Jessica Souza says:

      SVU has helped millions of people who have/are suffering with the crimes that have happened to them. 80% of sexual assaults don’t get reported. The show has been running for 14 years for a reason. When 1 in 4 people have been sexually abused, that means a quarter of the population can directly relate to this TV show, and identify with the characters.
      I, personally, love this show for all the good that has come out of it and respect any tv show/movie that can cause such a positive effect on the community.

  5. i am only 16 years old, i am like the biggest fan of law and order svu but i want to help those who suffer in silence from rape, abuse, violence, and crimes of that matter. it isnt right for someone to desiced for you to have sex then and there where and what time. how can people do that? i want to figure out and i want to become a sex crime investigator.

  6. Jasmine Eads says:

    I love law&order svu i want to be just like that i want to know how i am 16 and a spohmore in school it would be really nice to help people like that because i know how they feel i am wanting to help be thier voice

  7. Alexis Williams says:

    Hi my name is Alexis I’m 10. Ive been a big law and order svu fan my entire life.and the woman who plays Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) really inspires me to try my hardest to achieve my dreams and when I’m older I wanna come to newyork and work in the svu squad.and if you know her or if she sees this I want her to know that her character made me who I am today . She made me strong and independent before that I was so shy but she made me get rid of that shy I wanna thank Mariska hargitay because I’ve been waiting what seems like. Very long time to get beyond what I am and I wanna thank Mariska for that.:-) thanks Mariska

  8. elasia beal says:

    Law&order svu is the only thing that inspires me in life. The characters is describing the pain ima feel i know in the future ima be one of mahattan svu detectives no matter wat it takes

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