Mariska Hargitay’s “I Am Evidence” sheds light on rape kit backlog crisis

A version of this was previously published with District and can be found here.

Thousands of untested rape kits sit in police evidence storage rooms and crime labs across the country. These rape kits contain DNA evidence that could potentially locate and prosecute perpetrators who have committed sexual assaults.

But behind each rape kit is a person, a story, a survivor of rape waiting for justice. Through intimate cinematography, Mariska Hargitay’s revelatory documentary, “I Am Evidence,” sheds light on these survivors and this shameful miscarriage of justice the United States Criminal Justice System is responsible for. And it’s about time.

“I Am Evidence” wastes no time getting to the intimacy and intensity of the subject matter, beginning with interwoven tight shots of four women, all of whom are rape survivors, all of whom have had their rape kits forgotten by the system. As they begin to tell the stories of their rapes, most of them to tear up. Their voices shake. They take brief pauses in their stories, not only to compose themselves, but to let the viewer in, to let the viewer know that they are welcome to share in their stories.

Woven between their stories is the tireless story of Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and her combined efforts with Hargitay to end the backlog of rape kits in Worthy’s county after her office discovered 11,341 untested rape kits in a Detroit Police Department storage facility in 2009. Although Detroit is first used as a microcosm, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that the city’s and Worthy’s story should be used as a paragon for other cities with even larger backlogs.

The cause of backlogs, Worthy and Hargitay determine, lies in police departments across the country where investigators often times deem rape cases as “high complexity” and “low priority” crimes, effectively telling victims that their abuse would be too hard to prove, and isn’t as important as, say, a theft. This sort of neglect leads to the perpetrators being able to commit another, perhaps even more violent crimes.

Take, for example, Charles Courtney Jr., who violently raped Helena, the film’s second survivor, in southern California. As Helena tells her story, it is revealed that, because her rape kit was never tested, Courtney had continued on to rape at least one other victim in Ohio: Amberly, the film’s third survivor.

And just as the viewer is immersed in this tragic reveal, a map appears that follows the truck route Courtney traveled from California to Ohio. The choice to show this map forces the viewer to imagine just how many more women he may have raped, and how many more women were effectively forgotten because their rape kits, too, were never tested. It’s chilling and heartbreaking.

By having the four survivors tell their stories, while showing Worthy’s and Hargitay’s continuing story in between, it becomes clear that the shame shouldn’t be placed on the victims, rather it should be placed on the perpetrators, and, more importantly, on the justice system that has disgracefully failed the survivors when they needed help the most.

The film ends on an inspirational note, though, with interwoven tight shots of each of the film’s four survivors. Most of them cry again, but this time they seemingly are tears of closure, of hope. Once again, these shots are used to not only provide a silver lining for these women, but to also show that there can and will be a silver lining for other victims of this heinous injustice.

“I am evidence,” Ericka, the film’s fourth survivor says, “That there’s more to that box. There’s a human being there. This is not just a kit. This is a person. I’ll be free.”

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