As an avid watcher of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, I was under the false pretense that rapes were always investigated with diligence and high speed as they are shown to be on the T.V. show.
If you are not familiar with the show, let me give you a quick summary: main character Olivia Benson, a New York City detective, gets a call from her work phone that there has been a rape victim. She then swoops in with her team, works into the late hours of the night in order to catch the perpetrator and ensure the recovery of the victim. Do not get me wrong, I love the show, but it fooled me because not every rape victim in the United States is taken care of by an Olivia Benson. Thus, a backlog is created.
A rape kit is a set of bodily evidence collected upon the discovering of a rape victim. The kit, which is like a toolbox, contains the instructions and materials necessary to collect the forensic evidence off of the sexual assault victim that can aid in finding the offender. Victims are suggested to not shower, remove the clothing worn during the assault, or fix their hair. The process of completing the kit can take four to six invasive hours. In short, a victim has the feeling of discomfort prolonged in order to pass down a collection of evidence that may be stored on a shelf for years on end with no results.
Despite the valuable information supplied in completed rape kits, hundreds of thousands remain stored away and untested nationwide. The first half of the backlog is created when detectives and/or prosecutors never request DNA analysis. The second half is created when a kit has been submitted for DNA analysis but remains waiting to be tested. Behind each of those tucked away kits lies the story of a human being waiting for an answer that may never come. In some states, rape kits have been stored far past the statutes of limitations, a given time frame to solve the case, therefore preventing a victim to ever see justice. A tested rape kit can reveal the identity of serial offenders, confirm the account of the victim, absolve an innocent accused, and catch a known suspect. But this often does not happen. Instead, an untested rape kit collects dust.
Only eight states – Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas – have passed laws mandating the testing of all rape kits in their system, both backlogged and recently gathered. Then there are states like Tennessee, with cities like Memphis that has produced over 12,000 untested kits. Rape kits are not required by federal law to be tracked and tested. The lack of protection by federal law makes the one in five women and one in seventy-one men that are raped vulnerable. Combine this with the continued limitations on rape statutes and no regulation that each state use DNA evidence in rape cases and we can conclude the justice system has failed.
In an eye-opening 2017 documentary, I am Evidence, actress-advocate Mariska Hargitay says, “To me, the rape kit backlog is one of the clearest and most shocking demonstrations of how we regard these crimes in our society. Testing rape kits sends a fundamental and crucial message to victims of sexual violence: you matter. What happened to you matters. Your case matters.”
Stories like the one of Natasha Alexenko send chills and rage up your spine. In 1993, a gun was placed on the back of Alexenko’s head when she was forced to not cry out for helped while she was being raped. Ten years later, Alexenko received a call from her attorney informing her that her rape kit was tested with an attacker identified, and Victor Rondon was found guilty of eight other counts of violent assault including two more rapes. Those additional eight charges could have never existed had Rondon been caught back in 1993.
Cities need to work closely together to strategize ways to reduce the occurrence of rape and other violence done against women. If our public officials do not start to berate and scrutinize the way the law handles such delicate cases, then there is no justice being sought after. Rape victims’ bodies are placed under a microscope to collect the detailed evidence that captures offenders, and they deserve their justice.
Alexa Brady is a rising sophomore at NYU studying Journalism, Media, Cultures, & Communication.