Arts documentary review

The shocking state of rape kits in America

The hardest part of recovering from sexual assault trauma should not be getting your rape kit tested

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Untested rape kits in an evidence room in the documentary ‘I Am Evidence.’
Courtesy of HBO

I Am Evidence
Directed by Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir
Produced by Mariska Hargitay and Trish Adlesic

Every two minutes, someone in the United States is assaulted. Four hundred thousand untested rape kits are sitting abandoned in police warehouses across the United States. In just one U.S. city, of 10,895 rape kits, there were 1,684 Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) hits, and of those 1,684 hits, there were only six total convictions.

HBO’s new documentary, I Am Evidence, starts with harrowing statistics about sexual assault in America. Flashes of survivors’ stories are shown. The survivors are young and old, Caucasian and minorities, yet the message is clear: sexual assault transcends ethnicity, race, age, and any other demographic used to divide people. But, I Am Evidence is not a documentary about sexual assault in America; it is documentary about the aftermath of sexual assault. I Am Evidence is the story of rape kits.

Spanning over three major cities, Detroit, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, I Am Evidence uncovers the skeleton in every city’s police department: the thousands of untested, virtually discarded rape kits. There are only eight states that have laws requiring the testing of both current and backlogged sexual assault kits. There is a strong case for testing all these backlogged rape kits because rape kit testing revealed 770 serial rapists in just one city of one county of one state. Only 10 states in the United States were not affected by the rape kits found in Detroit, in one city. Most importantly, there are 400,000 survivors waiting for justice to be served — their bodies were literally crime scenes; they are living, breathing evidence.

I Am Evidence chronicles the journeys of four different survivors: Erika, Helena, Amberly, and Danielle. Erika, a survivor from Detroit, was just 21 when she was assaulted. The police officer handling her case told her it was unlikely that her perpetrator would be caught because there were just too many kits waiting to be tested before her. Helena, a survivor from LA, fought for 14 years to get her rape kit tested. It was only after Helena got in touch with a powerful ex-District Attorney that the sheriff's office called her back and finally tested her rape kit. Her rapist was a long-distance truck driver; he could have raped women all over the country. In fact, the investigation revealed that Helena’s rapist had raped a woman named Amberly in Ohio a few years later. Afterwards, Amberly, a bright young high school graduate, turned to drugs to cope with the trauma. Another survivor, Danielle was also raped as a young woman. Yet, when Nicole Disanto asked her to identify her rapist from a photo lineup years later, she identified him within seconds.

Using the backdrop of these neglected rape kits, I Am Evidence showcases the plight of women’s rights in America. Sexual assault survivors are called whores, hoes, or heffers in police reports; they are blamed for their rapes by virtue of their clothing, their location, or their relationship with the rapist; their rape kits are neglected and destroyed by police departments citing lack of resources and degree of importance. If, despite all of this, they still have the courage to get a rape kit done, they are treated simply as numbers instead of humans by law enforcement. They have to live with the knowledge that, in America, they are simply not important. Kym Worthy, a state prosecutor spearheading the rape kit backlog testing in Detroit, said it best, “Nobody gives a damn about women in this country.”

Something that sets I Am Evidence apart from other women’s rights commentaries is that it acknowledges the disparity of women’s rights between Caucasian women and women of color. Kalimah Johnson, the executive director of SHASHA, center plays a chief role in describing this disparity. In her interview, she states that if the victim was a woman of color or a woman with a substance abuse problem, she would get a call from the nurse requesting her to come down to the hospital at her leisure. But, if the woman was white or a woman of color with political clout, the call would come from a doctor telling her to come to the hospital immediately. Kalimah’s experience is just one of many used in the documentary to highlight the importance of skin color in America.

I Am Evidence was moving and powerful; it was shocking. It was the ideal balance of harrowing statistics, horrible stories, and hope for change. I Am Evidence does a phenomenal job at erasing all the categories that separate Americans into cohorts and connecting with the viewers solely as humans. It makes you want to stand up and do something; it makes you believe that everyone is capable of bringing about some change. It is a must-watch for all, especially for those who believe that the fight for women’s rights is over. It’s not. This is a problem that affects everyone.