A preponderance of 'Evidence'

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‘SVU’ actress’s new documentary spotlights the Detroit rape-kit backlog

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

If actress Mariska Hargitay isn’t fighting for the rights of sexual assault victims on-screen in the role of Det. Olivia Benson, she’s fighting for them off-screen in the role of activist.

Case in point: The Emmy-winning “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” actress is the producer of the documentary “I Am Evidence” – which recently aired on HBO – which is about the backlog of untested sexual assault kits (SAKs) in Detroit. Directed by Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir, “Evidence” chronicles the plight of four women, all victims of sexual assault, whose rape kits remained untested for years.

Backlogs of sexual assault kits (SAKs) have become an epidemic across the nation, which enraged Hargitay, motivating her to take action. Her staunchest ally in this crusade has been Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy, whom she has called “a beacon of light,” “a force of nature,” and “a true super-hero.” Both women are determined to end the backlog and ensure that justice is served for rape victims, regardless of how long ago they were sexually assaulted.
“(Hargitay) has chosen to give her time, attention, money, and resources to this. Her commitment is unwavering,” said Worthy.

Hargitay was in Detroit on April 15 for a special sold-out screening of “Evidence” in the Detroit Film Theatre, located at the Detroit Institute of Arts. This was part of the Freep Film Festival.

“People say, ‘Why did you make this movie?’ I said because I was really mad,” said Hargitay.

The SAK backlog came to light in 2009 when Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Robert Spada of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office was taking inventory at a Detroit Police Department storage facility that was taken over by the Michigan State Police. Spada discovered more than 11,300 SAKs – some dating back to the 1980s – had been shelved and never tested. A preliminary review revealed that the majority of these backlogged SAKs had never been submitted to either the DPD Crime Lab or the MSP Forensics Lab for DNA analysis.

“I had potentially (more than) 11,000 victims of crimes who were brave enough to report these crimes, had gone through this exhaustive process, and had been virtually ignored by the criminal justice system,” said Worthy. “I’m responsible for prosecuting crime in this county. It didn’t even cross my mind that I shouldn’t delve into this and find out what we had and make sure we could bring justice to all the victims we could. There wasn’t even a second thought to do anything else.”

SAKs are performed in the aftermath of a sexual assault. They contain and preserve evidence. If the victim chooses to report her rape to the police, the evidence in the SAK can be a very powerful mechanism in bringing a rapist to justice.

In direct response to this overwhelming number of backlogged SAKs, Worthy formed partnerships with the DPD, the MSP Forensic Science Division, Michigan State University, the Michigan Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention and Treatment Board, the Wayne County Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners, YWCA Interim House, the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan/Prosecuting Attorney Coordinating Council, and the Joyful Heart Foundation.

The latter is a nonprofit organization founded in 2004 by Hargitay, helping rape victims become survivors and reclaim a sense of joy in their lives. The impetus for Hargitay to start this foundation was from the number of letters she received from “SVU” fans over the years detailing their own sexual assault experiences. Hargitay also launched another nonprofit organization called No More, which is a community and corporate effort to raise awareness and end domestic violence and sexual assault.

“I feel like I was given a gift with this role,” she said. “I was given a platform. It was a way for me to respond. I’ve had the privilege of having had so many survivors share their stories with me, and I feel a responsibility to that.”

In 2015, Enough SAID (Sexual Assault in Detroit) – a collaboration between the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, the Michigan Women’s Foundation, and the Detroit Crime Commission – was launched in an effort to raise money to test untested sexual assault kits, investigate the result cases, and ultimately prosecute the rapists. This was a direct response to the untested SAKs.

To date, the last 600 SAKs are currently being processed. So far, 130 rapists have been convicted, more than 270 cases are under investigation, and more than 800 sex offenders have been identified, according to a spokeswoman for Worthy.

“One of the things that I would like to come out of the film is awareness,” said Worthy. “Once people are aware of this issue, I hope they will go to their local law enforcement agencies and demand to know if there are backlogged (SAKs). If there is a backlog, the kits must be tested, must be investigated, and must be prosecuted. It is great to be knowledgeable about this issue, but I would like to see knowledge combined with action.”

Worthy looks forward to the day when all these SAKs have been properly tested and the criminals responsible are brought to justice.

“When this office is properly funded and we can do what we need to do, we can focus on prosecuting our cases and bringing justice to the victims in the time period we should be doing it in,” said Worthy. “That will be the best part of my job, that will be the best day of my job, but that part hasn’t come yet.”

 
The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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