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In “I Am Evidence,” Kym Worthy and Mariska Hargitay visit a building in Detroit where untested rape kits are stored

During the 18 seasons that Mariska Hargitay has played Detective Benson on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” she has received thousands of letters from people who have been abused. Many of them had never told anyone before.

When Mariska heard about the untested rape kit backlog across the majority of jurisdictions in the U.S., she wanted to do something to change it. She testified before a Senate committee and enlisted the help of filmmakers Geeta Gandbhir and Trish Adlesic to make the documentary, “I Am Evidence,” which was part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

The title comes from Ericka, one of the women in the film, who says, “I AM evidence. My name is on a box on a shelf that has never been tested.” She goes on to say that at 21 years old, after her rape, when she and her father met with the police officer, he told them that nothing would happen to find the perpetrator. The backlog was so great that they would probably never get to investigating it.

Later in the film, Ericka says, “This is not a kit. This is a person.” She also says that she has compassion for her rapist but not the system, which should be accountable and better than a criminal.

The film largely chronicles the problem of untested rape kits in Detroit, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, but the issue is so widespread that only eight states currently have laws that require rape kits to be tested. That leaves 42 states without such laws even though a sexual assault takes place every two minutes. Of course, part of the terror is knowing that the perpetrator is still at large and can harm you again at any time.

A key heroine in the film is Kymberli L. Worthy, prosecutor of Wayne County, Michigan, who spearheaded the testing of Detroit’s rape kit backlog. Her efforts led investigators to find nearly 800 serial rapists, and the perpetrators have been linked to cases in 39 other states, some of which involved murders. Testing these kits also sometimes leads to the exoneration of men who have been wrongfully prosecuted.

Those who have studied the records of these rape cases, however, have found that the lack of testing isn’t always merely due to insufficient funds. Poor black women have often not been believed, and many in law enforcement don’t think of rape against these women as a crime at all or certainly not worthy of attention. In police reports, victims were sometimes called “bitches” or “whores.”

An African American social worker interviewed in the film said she noticed that poor black women or drug users are frequently distrusted more than non-drug-using white women or black women who are politically connected.

Some women are called “righteous victims” in reports. So-called righteous victims are those who were attacked by a stranger as opposed to a date, a friend, or a husband. But most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows.

One professional in the film says that police officers aren’t trained to understand how a victim might act after trauma. The belief is that if a victim doesn’t fight the attacker, it must be consensual sex. But studies have shown that there’s a condition called “rape-induced paralysis” in which the body shuts down and actually cannot move.

One comment in the film particularly struck me with regard to rampant victim-blaming in rape cases: “No one would ask a robbery victim why she was wearing that necklace.”

At a post-screening Q&A, director Geeta Gandbhir said, “It’s our hope that this will be seen worldwide. Obviously, this film focuses on the U.S., but this can be a global issue and is. There are other countries that struggle with this as well. There are so many issues ensconced in this one film…. We deal with sexism, systemic and structural racism, there’s the poor treatment of survivors and also public safety…. Everyone should be concerned…. This should be a global cause.”

Watch for “I Am Evidence,” which is set to air on HBO. In the meantime, visit the film’s website for information about how you can advocate in your area to end the rape kit backlog.

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