If you were to watch almost any episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” it’s likely that some form of sexual assault would take place, the victim would be given a rape kit at the hospital, and the dedicated detectives investigating would send the kit off to be tested for DNA evidence.
But what happens during the course of an hourlong procedural rarely aligns with reality, something “SVU” star Mariska Hargitay knows all too well. The actress, who has played Lieutenant Olivia Benson on the NBC series for 18 seasons, is a producer on “I Am Evidence,” an eye-opening new HBO documentary which premiered last week at the Tribeca Film Festival. The doc highlights the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits that sit in evidence rooms in police departments across the country.
For Hargitay, her role on “SVU” hasn’t just defined her career, it’s sent her on a mission to create change. She founded the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004, in response to the many letters she received from fans confiding in her about their personal stories of sexual assault. In 2009, Hargitay learned about the nation wide rape kit backlog and couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that untested DNA evidence was collecting dust in storage rooms.
“I thought my head was going to explode because I could not believe that this was how these crimes were being handled and that lives were being discarded,” Hargitay told HuffPost in a recent interview.
The message she believes it sends to women is that “you don’t matter.”
Ending the backlog became her foundation’s top priority, so Hargitay set out to make a documentary as a way to shed light on the issue.
Co-directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir spent nearly four years on the film, interviewing 14 women before ultimately focusing on the stories of four survivors of sexual assault. The result is 89 minutes of footage that will likely leave viewers astounded, outraged and horrified.
“It was always going to be a survivor-centric [film],” Adlesic told HuffPost. “Historically, the identities of victims have been kept private, obviously for safety reasons, but these women have waited so long to be heard.”
“One woman [that we interviewed] waited 30 years [to have her kit tested], so she was really ready,” she added. “You get pretty angry waiting that long.”
Viewers may already be familiar with the issue thanks in part to the segments on “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” that exposed the lunacy of public officials who actually opposed a bill that would force police to test rape kits. One segment ultimately helped prompt actual legislative change in Georgia in 2016.
While seeing rape kit legislation reform is an end goal for the filmmakers, Gandbhir told HuffPost that telling survivors’ stories was vital to their vision, since there’s still so much stigma surrounding sexual assault.
“One of our survivors talks about it ― the shame. She felt the shame was hers. I think that an important part of the film is really dismantling that sort of myth and stereotype,” she said.
But the real shame is in the attitudes of police departments across the country, who often don’t send kits out to be tested because they simply don’t believe the women reporting their rapes.
This isn’t a small group of people making bad decisions, this is about victim-blaming attitudes that are ingrained in our thinking. Mariska Hargitay
“One woman told me after her assault, she went home and told her mother and she called the police. The police came to the house and pulled the victim aside and said to her, ‘You know why you were raped, right?’ [The officer] said, ‘Because you don’t have a daddy,’” Adlesic said of one survivor’s story that didn’t make it into the doc.
The film shows these attitudes aren’t just wrong, they’re incredibly dangerous. While kits sit untested for years in storage, it allows serial rapists, like Charles Courtney Jr., to travel the country violently assaulting women.
Courtney Jr., a long-haul truck driver, was arrested in Indiana for raping his wife, Mary Jane Courtney, at knifepoint in September 1996. He plead guilty to a lesser charge of sexual battery and served only a two-year sentence. Three months after he was released from prison, he kidnapped and raped an Ohio woman named Amberly Lakes. When Lakes’ rape kit was tested in 2001, DNA evidence matched to Courtney and he was given a 30-year prison sentence. But Lakes’ rape would’ve never happened if the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office had previously tested a rape kit belonging to a woman named Helena Lazaro.
Courtney kidnapped and raped Lazaro at knifepoint in August 1996, but her kit wasn’t tested until 2003. Had Lazaro’s kit been tested when she was attacked ― and Courtney’s DNA been in the CODIS system in 1996 ― it’s likely he would have been flagged as a serial rapist.
“These attitudes, they make me insane,” Hargitay told HuffPost. “These attitudes are so pervasive. This isn’t a small group of people making bad decisions, this is about victim-blaming attitudes that are ingrained in our thinking.”
She continued, “Sexual assault and domestic violence and this kind of behavior derails a human life. But that’s what is so hopeful about the movie. There’s support in place in listening to survivors and believing survivors. That’s how we’re going to get on track and take away the shame and isolation and say, ‘You’re not alone and we are going to fix this.”
And the good news, she said, is that this is fixable.
“We have a plan to fix this in four years. The rape kit backlog could be ending by 2020,” she said.
But just by screening the film, Hargitay, Adlesic and Gandbhir are already accomplishing what they had hoped to. Hargitay recalled that after the film’s premiere, “this stunning, beautiful, powerhouse” woman, who holds a “big job,” privately approached the actress.
“She was like shaking and she kept saying, ‘I’m a box. I’m one of those boxes.’ And I was like, ‘First of all, you are so much more than a box,’” Hargitay explained. “It was just so beautiful to be in community. I think, being in community, as we say at Joyful Heart, and starting this conversation is how we are going to change it. It’s how we are going to fix it. It’s as simple as talking about it.”
“I Am Evidence” will air on HBO later this year.