Michael Winship: Fighting against those who rape
Devoted fans of the popular cop show can probably recite it in their sleep: “In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.”
Those stories on “Law & Order: SVU” are fiction (although they frequently echo tabloid headlines), but these statistics are not: Every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. One out of six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. But only 40 percent of these crimes will be reported.
These devastating numbers are at the very soul of a new documentary that offers an inside look at a real-life SVU — the sex crimes prosecution unit of the New York District Attorney’s office, the first of its kind in the country. Produced by Lisa F. Jackson, “Sex Crimes Unit” will be shown on HBO throughout the rest of June and into July. Look for it.
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau authorized the unit’s formation in 1974. Today, Lisa Friel is its chief. Deeply street smart and an expert in the law, she oversees 40 senior assistant DA’s with, on any given day, more than 300 pending cases.
At the program’s center is the remarkable story of Natasha Alexenko. On Aug. 6, 1993, the then-20-year-old Canadian college student was raped and sodomized at gunpoint in the bicycle storage area of her uptown Manhattan apartment building. Her assailant got away.
At the time, a rape kit was administered and DNA evidence collected but it sat on a shelf, untested, for nine and a half years. “It was sealed and nothing happened to it,” Assistant DA Melissa Mourges recalls. “And that happened with 17,000 kits around the city ... the seals were never broken. But then in 2000 two things happened that were very big for New York City and very big for the victims of these kind of crimes. One was that our medical examiner’s office, which does all of the DNA testing for the five boroughs, joined CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), the data bank ... so now we had profiles of known individuals that you could compare crime scene evidence to.”
The second was District Attorney Morgenthau’s establishing a cold case investigative operation within the sex crimes unit and creating a “John Doe” indictment; in the absence of a suspect, his DNA could be indicted, slamming the brakes on the statute of limitations.
The cold case unit reopened the Natasha Alexenko investigation nearly ten years after she was raped. The DNA of her assailant was entered into CODIS. Four years later, they got a hit. Her attacker was convicted, with a maximum release date of 2057.
On June 15, as press attention centered on whether the New York State Senate would pass legislation allowing gay marriage, that same body passed a bill that expands the state’s DNA database to require a sample from all those convicted of felonies and misdemeanors (up to now, only 46 percent of penal law crimes have been eligible).
Meanwhile, Natasha Alexenko has founded Natasha’s Justice Project, raising money to end the backlog of rape kits in America. While a minority of law enforcement jurisdictions in the United States — among them, New York City, Los Angeles, and the state of Illinois — require that every rape kit booked into police evidence is sent to a crime laboratory and tested for DNA, the vast majority do not. According to the website endthebacklog.org, “Experts in the federal government estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the United States.”
With increasing cuts in law enforcement budgets, outside assistance from groups like Alexenko’s may be the only alternative.
Toward the end of “Sex Crimes Unit,” she tells Lisa Jackson, “You have a choice in life of how to take things. Believe me, I had moments of feeling sorry for myself and I guess you can do that, choose to go that route, or you can choose to not be the victim. I guess if you gain strength from it and if you come out of it with something more, then you won; then you were never the victim.”
Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and former senior writer of “Bill Moyers Journal” on PBS.