I Am Evidence exposes the broken system behind rape kit testing

Reanna Comiso, Features Editor

Hundreds of thousands of rape kits are sitting untested and unopened in police stations across the country. As sexual assault survivors wait to find peace, a recent documentary shows the fractured system meant to bring them justice is letting them down.

“I Am Evidence,” an HBO documentary directed by Geeta Gandbhir and Trish Adlesic, explores the reality of the broken criminal justice system that is letting thousands of sexual predators roam the streets.

One survivor, Ericka Murria, recounts her story. For 12 years, she didn’t tell anyone other law enforcement she was raped on her 21st birthday, not even her parents. Now, she appears as the face of the documentary.

“I am evidence, literally,” said Murria.  “My name is on a box on a shelf that’s never been tested.”

When an individual is raped, the first thing they are told is to go to their local police department or hospital to receive a rape kit. Without doing so, the chances of finding justice is slim to none. Saliva, hair follicles and other pieces of DNA are collected in order to be tested. What follows is an investigation and prosecution to ensure perpetrators are caught.

Though the evidence is there, thousands of predators are roaming freely because of the lack of testing and prosecution. Over 400,000 rape kits wait to be tested across the United States.

“I Am Evidence”, released in April 2017, follows the story of four women as their cases finally become recognized, despite their assaults occurring over a decade ago. Their stories are fresh in their minds, despite being part of the massive backlog of rape kits.

Mariska Hargitay, best known for her years starring in “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” devoted her time as producer to shine a light on the unspoken problem of the criminal justice system. She speaks with experts to understand the issue while leaving victims the ability to tell their stories.

One woman, Danielle, sits with investigators in her Detroit home. Holding her baby, she is asked by investigators to try to remember key details about her rape that occurred in 1997, 20 years before the documentary aired. With tears in her eyes, she tells her story. After two decades, her case was finally being investigated.

The investigators showed Danielle several pictures to identify her perpetrator. She instantly identified her rapist. The investigators asked Danielle just how sure she was that she correctly identified her alleged perpetrator.

“One hundred percent,” said Danielle. “As soon as I saw his face on that sheet, I just knew right away who he was. I didn’t think about that face, but now, I never forgot.”

When told her alleged perpetrator faced 33 years in prison, she gave a sigh of relief.

Three specific states are highlighted to show the truth behind the rape kit backlog: Michigan, California and Ohio. Each state left thousands of rape kits untested. Each state claims different reasons for their lack of urgency in testing the kits, whether it be a lack of money, manpower or pure disregard.

Helena and Amberly are two other survivors highlighted in the documentary. After years of investigation, the two find justice. Both women were assaulted by the same man. It was not until Amberly reported the crime that any investigation occurred.

“If [law enforcement] would have taken it more serious and believed Helena, did their jobs and ran her rape kit in a timely manner, I would have never gotten raped, because he would have been caught,” said Amberly.

This is one instance where the documentary highlights the utter disregard for the evidence provided in rape kits. If each kit is tested in a timely manner, thousands of criminals could be taken off the streets and thousands of rapes would have never occurred.

“I don’t have compassion for the system that made this OK because the system should be more accountable; the system should be better than a criminal,” said Helena.

HBO effectively shines a light on an issue most people know nothing about. Until this documentary, the issue of untested rape kits was not discussed.

Following the documentary, 10,000 rape kits were finally sent for testing in Wayne County, Mich. After eight years, 807 serial rapists were identified. Those 807 people who attacked 10 to 15 people on average were finally investigated and prosecuted.

“I have adopted daughters, and you want them to grow up in a world where there may not be sexual assault or, God forbid, if they are sexually assaulted, their case will be important, and their kit will not be sitting on a shelf,” said Kym Worthy, Wayne County Prosecutor.