In an early scene in the new HBO documentary I Am Evidence, actor and activist Mariska Hargitay visits an abandoned, condemned storage facility. The building is decaying and dirty — but for decades, it's housed something of incredible consequence: 11,000 untested rape kits. I Am Evidence, streaming now, is infuriating, sad, and essential in its exploration of the shocking reason why so many rape cases go unsolved. A rape kit may seem like only one small part of the many facets of a sexual assault case, but as the doc shows, it has giant repercussions. And when one woman, Wayne County, Michigan Prosecutor Kym Worthy, made it her mission to end the backlog, the whole system saw a domino effect of arrests and convictions that proved these kits matter much more than they were given credit for.
According to RAINN, the vast majority of sexual assault perpetrators will never go to prison, due in part to the fact that the majority of sexual assaults are never reported to the police. Only 310 out of every 1000 are reported, meaning as many as two out of three go unreported. And for the rapes and sexual assaults that are reported, the biggest hurdle to getting the cases prosecuted, tried in court, or solved has to do with the enormous backlog of over 200,000 rape kits sitting in police department storage facilities all across the country.
As I Am Evidence points out, the reasons why so many kits never get examined or analyzed include everything from lack of personnel and funding to the hierarchy of crimes. But the larger issue has to do with systemic sexism and that fact that many departments, prosecutors, and court systems view sexual assault as a lesser crime unworthy of pursuing. From beginning to end, a victim's story is questioned, and the victims, the majority of whom are women, are often put through the gauntlet in order to have their stories discredited and doubted. From infuriating definitions of "righteous victims," to the weighted importance on stranger rape over acquaintance rape, to the repeated questioning of a victim's clothing, behavior, or intoxication status, I Am Evidence digs deep into this horrific process and how it can lead to a lack of justice for victims.
"Nobody gives a damn about women in this country," says Worthy in the film. When the prosecutor discovered the 11,000 untested kits in her own county, some of which had passed the statute of limitations, she swore to make the backlog disappear. And slowly but surely, she's doing it; since she made the discovery in 2009, over 780 suspected serial rapists have been identified, and 50 convictions based on the DNA results from the previously untested kits. Worthy has proven that getting through the extreme backlog is possible, if the criminal justice system would only make sexual assault cases a priority.
And Worthy now has an partner in the fight in Hargitay, a producer on I Am Evidence. The actor has been fighting for sexual assault victims for almost two decades, both as Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and in her real life. In 2004 she started the Joyful Heart Foundation, which focuses on the mission to "transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, support survivors’ healing, and end this violence forever." Since 2010, Joyful Heart has turned its attention to the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits that sit in various warehouses, police departments, and storage facilities all across the country, as I Am Evidence shows.
"People ask me why I made this movie, and the simple answer is that I was mad," Hargitay says when we speak on the phone. "I was outraged, shocked and had such deep sorrow for this sort of state of our nation and humanity and for survivors across the world to be ignored like that. We have the honor of growing up in America and everything that that means. This is a country where you get justice and to me it was one of the most shocking things I ‘d ever heard and it just made me so mad. The goal here is to turn outrage into action."
Hargitay considers the backlog to be one of the clearest and most shocking demonstrations of how sexual assault victims are regarded in our society. "Testing rape kits sends a fundamental and crucial message to victims of sexual violence that they matter," she says. "What happened to you matters. Your case matters." Through I Am Evidence, Hargitay hopes to "elevate the voices of those most impacted, mobilize the public, underline the urgency of this effort, and ultimately join forces with advocates across this country."
The ultimate goal is to get all kits tested and pass comprehensive rape kit reform legislation in all 50 states by 2020. To date, only eight states have laws that require testing of both current and backlogged kits. But since January 1, 2017, more than 65 new state bills requiring some type of rape kit reform have been introduced around the country.
I Am Evidence may be a difficult watch for some. The stories from assault survivors are particularly hard to hear, but their strength and determination are moving, inspiring, and a reminder that in order for change to happen, we need voices to speak out. "That is what we want this film to do," Hargitay says. "To provoke outrage into action, have people go, hey, maybe I’m gonna talk to my son about the word 'no'. Maybe I’m gonna talk to my kids about consent and what that really means, and humanity and empathy and everything you learn in kindergarten about compassion."
With women like Hargitay and Worthy fighting for justice, hopefully a revolution in how rape victims are treated can be made a priority. As multiple industries are facing #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, it's only logical that the criminal justice system have its own overhaul. "The timing of this film is divinely ordered," Worthy says. "Now that people have been hearing about everything that’s been going on, they're going to be even be more apt to listen and be educated than they were before."
Getting sexual assault crimes taken more seriously has to happen, even if it's one kit at a time. And the doc's release is perfectly timed; April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and you can help the cause by donating to the Joyful Heart Foundation or by hosting your own screening of I Am Evidence. Check out the I Am Evidence Action Center for more info.