courtesy Wikimedia Commons

TU holds documentary screening about US rape kit backlog

TU partnered with the Joyful Heart Foundation to screen “I Am Evidence,” spotlighting the high number of untested rape kits in the US.

The University of Tulsa partnered with the Joyful Heart Foundation on Saturday to host a private screening of “I Am Evidence,” an HBO documentary film that chronicles the disturbing number of untested rape kits in the United States.

By sharing the stories of four sexual assault survivors, “I Am Evidence,” shows that victims of sexual assault are not just kits: they are real people seeking justice.
The film opens with 32-year-old Ericka, who on the night of her 21st birthday survived a gang rape by a group of her boyfriend’s friends. The day after the assault, Ericka got a rape test conducted but was promptly told by a detective that the evidence they collected would amount to nothing.

“He told me, ‘I’m just going to be honest. Nothing is going to happen,’” Ericka said. Her evidence would go on to collect dust, along with 11,000 other untested rape kits, in a dilapidated warehouse in Detroit.

In Cleveland, a woman named Danielle shares her story about the night she was raped when she was just 14 years old. Her kit would go on to be one of the 4,000 untested rape kits in Cleveland alone.

Helena in Los Angeles tells her story about the night she survived a sexual assault. She was approached by a man with a rag over his face at a car wash, abducted at knife point and repeatedly assaulted for the next 10 hours. The man took Helena’s license, which contained her address, and threatened to come to her house and kill her if she reported the assault.
Helena waited for the next 14 years to get her rape kit tested.

“I didn’t understand why I was so unimportant that nobody would take a little bit of time and help me find out,” she said.

Amberly of Fairfax, Ohio remembers the night she was assaulted over 19 years ago. She was threatened by a man in a grocery store parking lot. He told her pull her car in between two semi trailers, out of view of the people on the road. The man proceeded to rape Amberly and took her license, threatening to kill her if she told the police what happened.
After completing a rape test, Amberly said, “The police didn’t contact me for a long time.”

Her assailant, Charles Courtney, was the same person who raped Helena two years prior in Los Angeles, and he had raped his own wife prior to that. The rape kits belonging to Courtney’s wife and to Helena had sat dormant for years.

Amberly said her rape wouldn’t have happened if the kits belonging to Courtney’s wife and to Helena had not been neglected by police.

Today, over 200,000 rape kits sit untested in police departments and crime labs across the United States. Only eight states (excluding Oklahoma) currently have laws in place that require the testing of all rape kits.

The importance of testing rape kits, says Wayne County, Michigan Prosecutor Kym Worthy, is severe: rape kits can identify a known suspect, affirm a survivor’s account of the attack, identify serial offenders and, most importantly, exonerate an innocent person.

Worthy’s investigation into the backlog of rape kits in Detroit led to the discovery of the 11,000 untested kits in the dilapidated warehouse back in August 2009. Since then, her efforts to remove the backlog have helped identify and convict over 800 sex offenders in Detroit alone, and have connected cases in 39 states across the country.

“We had to bring justice to these people,” Worthy said.

Dr. Rebecca Campbell, a psychology professor and sexual assault researcher who worked with Worthy to uncover Detroit’s untested rape kits, says over 80 percent of these kits belonged to African American women.

“We’re talking about poor black women,” Campbell said.

According to Campbell, many of the reports filed by Detroit police included words like “heffer,” “ho,” and “bitch.”

“It’s pretty clear [the police] didn’t believe the victims,” Campbell said. “There’s a lesser sense of value,” she added, noting the different treatment the police gave to poor women of color who reported sexual assault.

“With the darker pigment of your skin, your life seems to have less value in the criminal justice system,” Worthy said.

One of the biggest problems facing all sexual assault victims, and simultaneously contributing to the rape kit backlog, is police refusal in believing the victims’ stories.

The film explores the concept of “righteous” victims, people who are sexually assaulted by complete strangers rather than by people they know. The underlying assumption by police is that because the victim knows the person, the assault should not occur and that the victim therefore shares some part of the blame if an assault does occur.

This assumption affects the way police handle rape kits. Those that come from “righteous” victims are processed faster, or are simply given sufficient attention to be processed at all.
Other times, police may not believe a victim’s story because of the victim’s behavior during the assault itself.

Many times, people who experience sexual assault enter into a state of paralysis while the assault is occurring. This, the film explains, is the body’s way of trying to survive the attack.
Police, however, often interpret this behavior as “she just laid there, so she must have wanted it.”

Often times, when victims are threatened with a gun or another sort of weapon, the body’s natural reaction is to freeze, in fear that the perpetrator may actually use the weapon against them. The victim’s inability to run, kick or scream is therefore often interpreted as a sign that he/she “wanted it” to happen.

All of these issues have left victims of sexual assault frustrated, their kits unopened and their justice delayed.

“The system should be better than a criminal,” Helena said.

The film’s producer, Mariska Hargitay, said the inspiration for “I Am Evidence,” came from her years playing Lieutenant Olivia Benson on the NBC series Law & Order: SVU. Hargitay said she received an overwhelming amount of letters from viewers saying her character had inspired them to open up about their own experiences as sexual assault victims.

A common theme, Hargitay said, is that the victims had told no one. The shame felt by victims, often exacerbated by police skepticism, pushed Hargitay to create the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004, an organization dedicated to helping sexual assault victims and changing the way society reacts to sexual assault.

With her work as President of Joyful Heart, Hargitay began to uncover the thousands upon thousands of untested rape kits currently filling up police departments and crime labs in the US. “I Am Evidence” is Hargitay’s effort to expose this negligence on the part of the criminal justice system, and give sexual assault victims a chance to share their stories.

“‘I Am Evidence,’ that there’s more to that box there,” Ericka said. “It’s more than just a kit, there’s a human being there.”

The film concluded with a panel of regional and national leaders in sexual assault prevention. Conducted by President Clancy, the panel included Tulsa Police Capt. Rick Helberg, Oklahoma State Rep. Cyndi Munson, Tulsa County Assistant District Attorney Kenneth Elmore, Managing Director of Joyful Heart Foundation, Sarah Haacke Byrd and Danielle Tudor, a member of the Oklahoma Task Force on Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence, volunteer ambassador for the Joyful Heart Foundation and a survivor of sexual assault herself.

“I was raped in 1979 as a senior in high school,” Tudor said.

“Today, November 11, is exactly 38 years ago that I was raped in my childhood home.”

Tudor said she spent 30 years not thinking about her assault. Now, with films like “I Am Evidence,” victims’ voices are being amplified and people are listening.

“I didn’t know that I was going to do this with my life,” Tudor said. “I didn’t ever want to be know as Danielle Tudor, rape victim.”

However, after coming to terms with how using her story could be instrumental to the cause of prevention Tudor said, “I changed my mind and thought, ‘How could I not be that voice?’”

“I truly have had a joyful heart and a joyful life. Survivors need to know that is possible, it is attainable,” Tudor said.

Tudor was particularly instrumental in setting up the exclusive documentary showing before it officials airs on HBO in 2018.

Tudor said the documentary was important because “sexual assault and everything that goes with that is a very multifaceted puzzle with different pieces to it.”

“The rape kit and the DNA evidence that it holds is an extremely important piece of the puzzle,” Tudor said. “The DNA evidence from a rape kit is the shell casing from a crime scene, why would you not test that?”

Tudor hoped that viewers walked away with the understanding that when it comes to rape kits, “It’s not a box, it’s a person … That person is important, their life is important and we need to test all rape kits.”

Tudor said she has been impressed by the University of Tulsa’s reception of her message and efforts toward preventing sexual assaults on campus.

“It’s important for you to know that every single college president in this state received a personal invitation from President Clancy to be here and join in the discussion,” Tudor said. “Not one responded. Not one out of 45.”

In addition to college presidents, every member of the State House and Senate were also invited, however only 5 attended.

“TU stands out far above any college campus in this state,” Tudor said. “You guys are becoming the leaders.”

Tudor said the student body at TU has also been very energetic in this role. “Sometimes it takes this generation to stand up and say ‘What the hell are you guys doing? Fix this!’”

“I just wanted to personally thank President Clancy, and your staff,” Tudor said. “You have been absolutely incredible to me. You have opened your heart.

“At times when I have felt like maybe I just can’t do this anymore, you have been one of those people that have made me feel like I can. And I value that, very very much.”

Post Author: Kyle Crutchfield