Ziana Kotadia (MBA ’22) reports on the more than 200,000 survivors who are yet to see justice.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Sexual violence affects hundreds of thousands of women in the US every year. One out of six women in the US has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape, and today, only five out of every 1,000 rapists will end up in prison. I AM EVIDENCE, a documentary from Mariska Hargitay, Founder and President of the Joyful Heart Foundation, tells the story of four survivors whose rape kits went untested for years and exposes the broader problem of how the US deals with sexual violence. This article highlights some of the learnings from this exposé. I hope that after reading you are encouraged to watch the documentary and use your voice to help change the way we, as a society, treat rape survivors.
The investigation started in Detroit, where a task force identified 11,000 untested rape kits, many of which had been sitting unopened for decades. The kits overwhelmingly belonged to women. The way the justice system treated these survivors reflected what society thought about these crimes, that they were unimportant. Nobody seemed to care after women had been violated in the most intimate of ways. One of the survivors was told, “nothing is going to happen, I’m going to put your kit in a file, in a box, and I’m not sure when, or if, we’ll ever get to it. I can take you right now to a storage room with all the women waiting to be tested before you.”
Testing rape kits is important. They help solve other criminal cases, they enable cases to be linked across states, they exonerate the innocent, and they bring justice. The rape kit helps police get a genetic profile of the attacker, which is inputted into CODIS, the US criminal DNA database.
Why were these kits not being tested, despite their importance? Firstly, it costs money to test a kit, $400, and the funding in Detroit was absent. When budget cuts were made, sexual violence crimes were deprioritized. Upon further investigation, there was a culture of not seeing these women as victims. Many of these kits belonged to poor, black women, another manifestation of systemic racism within the US. The life of a woman with darker skin had less value in the criminal justice system, these women were seen as not being human enough to be rapable. In fact, police reports referred to these women as “bitches”, “whores” and “heffers.” They did not believe the survivors and instead dismissed their reports as being a lie. Victim blaming in sexual assault is common. The documentary notes, nobody would ask a robbery victim, “why were you wearing a necklace,” yet too many police officers would lead with questions such as, “what were you wearing,” “did you try and run,” “did you call the police,” in other words, “what did you do to provoke or deserve the violence against you.”
In Cleveland, Ohio, with over 5,000 untested rapekits, the police did not take the accusations made by several women against serial rapist, Anthony Sowell, seriously. It was only when officers went to look for Anthony Sowell, they found the bodies of eleven women in the house, who had been raped and murdered. It begged the question, how many people had been attacked long after the evidence was there, but had not been used? How many women have unnecessarily suffered because of untested rape kits? The department was shocked, after testing 5,066 kits, they received 1,935 CODIS hits. Approximately 40% of these suspects were already in the criminal justice system. The team began to prioritise the cases, but could not keep up, and suspects left on the street would continue to offend. One example was screened in a team meeting, it was footage of a man that had not yet been arrested raping two more women after the evidence had been found. One third of suspects were linked to multiple cases, they were serial rapists. Of these 1,935 CODIS hits, 737 were serial offenders.
In LA, more than 12,000 rape kits were found untested. Many of these kits had been destroyed, and thrown away by the LAPD without being opened. One survivor told her story, she was approached by a man asking for help, he then repeatedly assaulted her for ten hours, took her license and said, “I know where you live, if you report me, I’ll find you and kill you.” The questions she was then asked by the officers were aimed at trying to understand what she did to put herself in this situation, for example they asked, “why were you at the gas station.” This survivor felt blamed for her own assault. 11 years later, she was still waiting for the kit to be tested. Another survivor, who was attacked by a long distance truck driver who had access to women from LA to Ohio, turned to drugs to cope with the trauma. In LA, only 12% of cases resulted in arrest, 8% of cases resulted in conviction, and just 5% resulted in prison sentence. That is 1 out of 20 reports resulting in a prison sentence in LA.
The attitudes towards sexual violence, and victim blaiming, are highly concerning. They suggest that “stranger rape is the only real rape,” and there is a “rightgeous victim.” In fact, the most frequently reported sexual assault cases are from friends or acquaintances. Officers do not learn about trauma, and how it manifests itself. For example, rape-induced paralysis is common, victims are often not able to move in a trauma because the body is trying to protect itself. One survivor who was gang raped, took her rape kit to the police, and the response was, “she just lay there, so she must have wanted it.”
While the documentary was released in 2017, systemic racism in the justice system, dismissal of sexual violence crimes by police departments and failing to test rape kits is still today’s reality. The Joyful Heart Foundation notes, “Currently, only 10 states (Colorado, Georgia, Hawai’i, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas) have passed laws requiring the testing of all kits, both backlogged and newly collected. Most jurisdictions do not track rape kits, most states do not require testing, and very few prohibit the destruction of rape kit evidence. The national backlog of untested rape kits is an unconscionable failure of the criminal justice system to take rape seriously.” Allowing the destruction of rape kits before testing is not the only failure of government institutions. Today laws in many states stipulate that if a woman voluntarily consumed alcohol before being violated, it is not considered rape. Most recently, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a man could not be charged on account of sexual assault because the woman who survived his attack had willingly had a drink before.
We had the immense honor of speaking with Co-Director and Producer, Trish Adlesic, and Executive Producer and Managing Director of The Joyful Heart Foundation, Lauran Bromley, about their work on ending the rape kit backlog and progress that has been made since the documentary aired. Alongside raising awareness, they have worked tirelessly with the government to secure funding for this cause. We asked, what can we do to help? Firstly, organise a screening of I AM EVIDENCE with your friends, family and fellow HBS classmates to help raise awareness of this issue. Secondly, make your local legislator aware of the backlog, but pressure on government representatives to allocate funding towards solving these sexual violence crimes.
While you cannot change what happened to survivors, you can change what will happen to someone else. The results from testing in Cleveland helped cases in 39 other states. Today, there are over 200,000 untested rape kits in the US, and this number continues to rise.
We would like to thank The Joyful Heart Foundation, not only for taking the time to speak with us, but also for their incredible work towards ending the rapekit backlog, and helping sexual assault survivors.
To watch I AM EVIDENCE: https://www.iamevidencethemovie.com/ and visit HBO Max or Apple Movies
To learn more about the rapekit backlog in your local state: https://www.endthebacklog.org/
To learn more about the work of The Joyful Heart Foundation: https://www.joyfulheartfoundation.org/
Ziana Kotadia (MBA ’22) is from the UK, and most recently made the move from London to Boston. She loves to travel, learn about new cultures and enjoys eating her way through cities. She loves to cook and is passionate about great food.