Apr 28, 2021
With April being Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention month, it’s an appropriate opportunity to highlight a film that examines the critical but underreported issue of untested rape kits in the U.S. “I Am Evidence” is an HBO documentary released in 2018 that was produced by Mariska Hargitay, star of the long-running NBC drama, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation. Hargitay also appears in the film, along with a number of sexual assault survivors who courageously tell their personal stories.
Hargitay testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010 regarding the rape kit backlog issue. Her testimony sparked a wave of media attention. At the beginning of the film, various news reports citing rape backlog statistics are intercut:
“Memphis more than 12,000 [untested rape kits]. Louisville roughly 4,700. San Diego Police have nearly 3,000. Colorado has 6,283. In Texas, we have over 20,000 untested rape kits. Never opened, never tested. It’s estimated as many as 400,000 rape kits nationwide. Some cases may be too old to prosecute under the statute of limitations.”
Early on in the film, Hargitay travels to an abandoned warehouse in Detroit with Wayne County Prosecutor, Kym Worthy. Detroit is a charming city with a rich culture, but this particular block where the warehouse sits looks as if it had been shelled by aircraft bombers. It could pass as Beirut circa 1990.
Half of the building is reduced to rubble, with exposed concrete and steel all around. Windows are broken and smoke stains are visible on multiple levels. Although the building actually looks perilously close to collapsing, this is where, if you’re a rape victim in Detroit, the evidence that could bring your attacker to justice is stored (or perhaps more precisely, abandoned). Inside the warehouse are literally thousands of untested rape kits, official evidence of the Detroit Police Department.
Hargitay was unaware of the rape kit backlog problem until she met Kym Worthy. It was shortly after Detroit discovered approximately 11,000 untested kits. “Nobody gives a damn about these women,” says Worthy. Since then, she and Hargitay have been on a mission to test each and every one.
It’s startling to think that, if you were the victim of a serious crime, evidence which could help obtain justice would just be discarded without a second thought. If, after being physically assaulted, mugged, and left for dead, the evidence gathered was thrown in a box and disposed of in a warehouse never to be examined – out of sight, out of mind – you’d undoubtedly be furious. But that, sadly, is the common practice for cases involving victims of sexual assault, which Worthy refers to as the “clearest and most shocking demonstration of how we regard these crimes.”
“I felt like my body was a crime scene,” one survivor says in the film, describing the process of undergoing a rape kit.
The movement to address the thousands of untested rape kits in Los Angeles began several years ago. Victim advocate groups and elected officials began putting pressure on the LAPD at the end of 2008, according to the Los Angeles Times. At that time, the department reportedly had 6,132 untested rape kits housed in freezers. In February 2011, after two years of efforts to pool federal grants, public funds, and private donations to outsource the testing to private labs, the LAPD announced that all of those kits had been analyzed.
The work proved to be worthwhile, with a reported 300 arrests made using DNA evidence collected at crime scenes. Such results are typical when rape kits are tested, which can prove to be an invaluable key to obtaining justice.
In Ohio, the Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force was established in 2013 by the prosecutor’s office. It was an all-out effort to end the county’s backlog once and for all. In the film, then-prosecutor, Tim McGinty, speaks of the progress made.
“These rape kits are the best bargain in the history of law enforcement,” McGinty says. “$400 per rape kit, and one in four results in an indictment. One in four [of those indicted] then results in a serial rapist. I’ve never seen an opportunity like this in law enforcement. It will never happen again.”
As of February, Cuyahoga County’s task force had effectively ended the backlog after testing 7,025 rape kits. The efforts resulted in the identification of 511 serial rapists, 850 serial sex offenders, and 826 indictments.
While those results speak for themselves, a similar solution has not been found in Los Angeles. In April of last year, the California Attorney General’s Office issued a statewide audit of “untested sexual assault forensic evidence kits.” The audit confirmed nearly 14,000 untested rape kits. But shortly after the audit was released, the Sacramento Bee issued a report claiming that figure was likely an undercount. The report cited a number of factors, including:
While not every department handles rape kits, the figure (149 out of over 700) is woefully inadequate. “The low turnout shocked sexual assault advocates who’ve spent years advocating for more efficient testing of rape kits and relied on the audit to shed light on that need,” the Sacramento Bee report said.
“The results are disappointing to say the least,” said Assemblyman David Chiu. Chiu is the author of Assembly Bill 3118 (AB-3118), a law passed in 2018 mandating that rape kits be tested within 120 days. “When a kit remains untested, it retraumatizes the survivor,” he told the Sacramento Bee in 2020.
At the end of 2020, Assembly Bill 18 (AB-18) was introduced by Assemblyman Tom Lackey. In a February op-ed in the Los Angeles Daily News, Lackey described the bill’s objective as requiring “every law enforcement agency in possession of a rape kit dated before 2016 to submit that evidence to the crime lab where it must be processed and have its information sent to the appropriate agency.” It’s an ambitious bill that, as Lackey notes in the op-ed, would overwhelm law enforcement agencies already struggling to address the backlog. Lackey, therefore, encourages California Governor, Gavin Newsom, to “make victims of rape a priority and not only pass my bill, but give law enforcement agencies and labs the resources they need by using the multi-billion dollar budget surplus the governor recently announced.”
Another bill introduced in January – State Bill 215 (SB-215) – aims to essentially allow survivors the ability to track the status of rape kits. State Senator Connie Leyva authored the bill, which would create a state-run website where law enforcement agencies have the capability to upload their own data on sexual assault kits while also keeping survivors updated regarding progress and results.
“This bill will empower survivors and help them to regain a sense of control,” Leyva said on California Public Radio in February. The Joyful Heart Foundation, a non-profit founded by Mariska Hargitay in 2004, confirms that approximately two-dozen states currently have sexual assault tracking kit systems in place for survivors.
As for the current status of these bills:
But while these bills are all clearly an indication of forward progress in obtaining justice for sexual assault survivors, they do not address the larger underlying issue of the statue of limitations. Senator Leyva, who also authored a bill banning secret settlements in cases of sexual assault (SB-813), has pushed for ending the statute of limitations on rape cases in California. This is a move DLG’s Founder and President, Sam Dordulian, has been advocating for since his time as a sex crimes prosecutor in the position of Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles County.
In 2019, Governor Newsom signed into law California Assembly Bill 218 (AB-218). The bill, which we’ve covered extensively throughout various blogs, offers an unprecedented opportunity at justice for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Specifically, the bill tolls (pauses) the statute of limitations on childhood sex crimes for three years under its “lookback window” clause.
In essence, any survivor of childhood sexual abuse is eligible to file a civil lawsuit seeking financial damages against an abuser from January 1, 2020 – December 31, 2022. The bill has been hailed by sexual assault advocates and lawmakers throughout the country. Many states have followed California’s lead in permanently extending the statute of limitations on childhood sex crimes while also temporarily removing it to allow survivors of decades-old abuse to come forward and finally have their chance at justice.
AB-218 has provided survivors of childhood sex crimes with an opportunity that, prior to its passage, was unfathomable. Before AB-218, if the statute of limitations had expired, survivors of childhood sex abuse were simply out of luck in terms of having any legal recourse. With AB-218’s passage, individual abuse as well as institutional abuse is finally facing its long overdue reckoning. Powerful organizations such as the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America are facing justice for unspeakable atrocities. AB-218 specifically included a “treble damages” clause providing courts with the power to issue triple settlements or verdicts awarded for crimes involving cover-ups.
At DLG, we’ve been flooded with child sex crime cases – some dating back over 40 years – that are now eligible for justice under AB-218. Given the impact AB-218 has had, the question of whether or not to end the current 10-year statute of limitations on rape cases must be addressed.
One of the survivors featured in the film, identified only as Helena, was raped in Los Angeles in 1996. It was four days after her 17th birthday. She was washing her car – a birthday gift – one evening when a man approached. Wearing a mask, he abducted her at knifepoint and held her captive for 10 hours. During that time, she was repeatedly sexually assaulted. The assailant took her license along with the $20 in her wallet.
Helena immediately reported the incident to the police, actually flagging down a police cruiser once she was released. She was taken to a local hospital and underwent a rape kit.
“The process takes several hours,” she said, describing it as a “humiliating process – not only because of the physical invasion, but because of the kind of questioning.” From her perspective, Helena describes questions from law enforcement as being pointed in such a way that they were more concerned with determining “what I did to cause the assault” than finding the perpetrator.
“I felt blamed right away,” she said, holding back tears. In one of the next scenes, a meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors from October 2008 is shown. “How many rape kits do you have in central storage?” an unidentified man asks off-camera. “Off the top of our heads, we could not tell you,” says an unidentified legislator.
In the next scene, an old news report (seemingly released shortly after the Board of Supervisors meeting) says, “When the sheriff’s department finally counted, they found nearly 5,000 kits in storage. 300 of them were past the statute of limitations.”
“When something like this has happened, and you don’t know where that person is, that means they’re everywhere,” Helena says. She goes on to describe terrible, debilitating nightmares and that, for an extended period after the rape, she was struggling to simply survive. “I was not a functioning person,” she says. But the most heartbreaking part of her interview is when she describes a lack of interest in pursuing the assailant.
“I can’t understand what was so unimportant about me,” she says. “That someone couldn’t take just a little bit of their time and help me find out [the assailant’s identity].” She breaks down in tears a moment later.
Helena says that in order to make any progress in her case, she had to eventually contact a former deputy district attorney to advocate on her behalf. That individual reportedly reached out the sheriff’s department demanding answers, but it was 14 years after the rape occurred. Within two weeks, Helena says she finally, after more than a decade, received a call from the sheriff’s department. Shortly thereafter, she was presented with some photos of potential suspects. She immediately picked out the assailant – Charles Courtney – who happened to be a serial rapist.
Helena says in the film that her rape kit was actually processed “three or four years prior” to her ex-deputy district attorney advocate becoming involved. The findings from the DNA matched to Charles Courtney, but no one followed-up with her. As of the film’s production, she had yet to receive an answer as to why no action was taken to track down Courtney. “It fell through the cracks,” is the best justification she’s been given.
Courtney was a long-haul truck driver for years, making regular trips from California to Ohio. Another survivor from Ohio who was also raped by Courtney is featured in the film. Identified as Amberly, her attack occurred in April 1998. Consistent with Courtney’s modus operandi, she was also abducted and assaulted for hours.
“The police didn’t contact me again for a long time,” she says.
“The lab in the state of Ohio finally received enough money to hire someone to put in the DNA from all the backlogged rape kits across the state,” says Michelle Brettin, a retired Fairfield, Ohio, Police Officer who investigated Amberly’s case. Brettin says that when they “finally got the call,” Courtney’s DNA had actually been in the system – known as CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) – for years. Courtney had been charged with raping his own wife in 1996.
“It was heartbreaking,” says Brettin, noting that Amberly had “turned her life to drugs” after the sexual assault.
“When traumatic events happen to you, everybody deals with everything a different way,” says Amberly. “It [the assault] definitely had to do with my addiction issues.”
It’s a tragically common scenario of a sexual predator who evades justice for years, only to repeat the act again and again, perpetuating a vicious cycle of devastating the lives of survivors and their families.
Shortly after Brettin arrested Charles Courtney, she received a call from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. They were, of course, calling to confirm that Charles Courtney was responsible for the rapes of Helena and Amberly. Brettin says she thought the sheriff’s department would have pursued the case immediately. Instead, “there was nothing.”
“I didn’t hear anything back until about 2011.” That was nearly a decade later, while Helena waited in vain for justice. “A decade on a case that could have been resolved for her. A decade!,” Brettin says indignantly.
In the end, the statute of limitations for rape had expired in Los Angeles by the time Courtney was apprehended. Had he not taken the $20 from Helena’s wallet the night of the rape in 1996, he would never have been charged in California. The theft allowed prosecutors to charge Courtney with abduction with intent to commit another crime, which Helena refers to as a “loophole.” “That was the only reason that we were able to file a charge at all,” she says.
“I have heard that the prosecution numbers in Los Angeles are exceedingly low,” says Laura Chick, former L.A. City Controller, in the film. “They don’t prosecute rape cases,” adds Gail Abarbanel, Director of UCLA’s Rape Treatment Center, referring to the issue that includes backlogged rape kits as the “unspoken problem.”
Dr. Cassia Spohn of Arizona State’s School of Criminology conducted a study that she says confirms rape prosecutions in Los Angeles are much lower when compared to other major cities across the country. The study – Policing and Prosecuting Sexual Assault in Los Angeles County – examines data from 2005-2008. According to Spohn, only 12% of rape cases resulted in arrest, while just 8% led to conviction. Of those convicted, approximately 5% resulted in a prison sentence. Those figures have been vehemently disputed by various Los Angeles lawmakers, it should be noted. But Spohn claims the stats are solid, confirming that only one out of every 20 reports of forcible rape in Los Angeles County reported to the LAPD during the aforementioned time period resulted in a prison sentence.
While exact statistics regarding rape in Los Angeles may be disputed, the fact that sex crimes are significantly underreported, and that the vast majority of sexual predators in every corner of the country will never go to jail or prison, is not debatable. As RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) confirms, out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 995 perpetrators will walk free. Part of that has to do with underreporting, with only 230 of every 1,000 sexual assaults estimated to ever be reported to police.
But reasons for not reporting sex crimes are intensely personal, which is yet another argument for why removing the statute of limitations on rape is so important. At the very least, tolling (pausing) the statute of limitations on all rapes until every backlogged DNA kit is processed should be a goal.
“There’s no question the statute should be removed immediately for civil rape claims,” says Sam Dordulian. “That’s something that, just like AB-218 with childhood sex crimes, could be passed by our elected officials in a relatively short period of time. The difference this could make for rape survivors, allowing them the opportunity to come forward and report on their own terms, simply can’t be overstated,” he said.
A push to end the statute of limitations on rape cases is currently ongoing through a grassroots organization at UCLA. Their stated objective is to “end the 10-year statute of limitations on rape and sexual assault in California, so that adult survivors of sexual violence can report the crime whenever they are able. It often takes years for victims to come forward due to fear, trauma, shame, and stigma.” It’s a great start, but will require action from lawmakers.
One of the most important points highlighted in “I Am Evidence” is the fact that the vast majority of rapes are committed by predators who are close to the victims. The abduction at knifepoint scenario is actually much less common than a rape by someone you know, or even someone you may have been previously intimate with. It’s an important justification for eliminating the rape statute of limitations, as coming forward to report someone you know can be so difficult, and often takes substantial time to process. Moreover, it’s important to note that rape does not have to entail an attack of any kind. Merely not giving consent is, in fact, rape.
“It’s so unfortunate that survivors are overwhelmingly of the belief that rape has to be a major attack with a perpetrator using force, or even a weapon of some kind, in order to qualify for a civil suit,” says DLG’s Sam Dordulian. But beyond the use of force, many survivors are also under the impression that once consent is given in a relationship, it lasts forever.
“I see a lot of rape survivors who believe that once they begin having a consensual sexual relationship with someone, they’re suddenly no longer capable of being ‘raped’ under the law. It’s as if that earlier consent they had given somehow lasts forever in terms of legality. But consent is mandatory every single time, and there are no exceptions to that rule,” Dordulian says.
With April being Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention Month, DLG would like to take this opportunity to inform all readers that ‘no means no’ and rape is never, under any circumstances, defensible. Furthermore, if you or someone you care about were ever the victim of rape – even on just one occasion – you have rights under the law.
“I try to tell survivor clients that they need to help inform their friends and loved ones about what constitutes rape,” says Dordulian. “It happens so frequently, but survivors will often find an explanation – we met on a dating app or a ‘sugar daddy‘ website, it only happened once, we used to date, I was drunk and didn’t try hard enough to fight back. But none of those ever justify being sexually assaulted,” Dordulian says.
DLG offers survivors of sexual assault four-tiered representation through our unique team of Sexual Assault Justice Experts (SAJE). To learn more about why we’re the top-rated, premier firm for sexual assault survivors, contact us online or by phone at 818-322-4056. When you’re ready to take the step towards justice via a civil lawsuit in pursuit of a financial damages award, we’re here to help.
Our law firm in Glendale, CA advocates for victims of sexual assault, injury, employment disputes, and personal injury concerns.