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.