Interview with Lisa Jackson
Is this a story you've wanted to tell for a long time?
My first attempt to make to make this film started in 1996. I had the idea in my head beforehand, but that was when I first approached the unit and the prosecutors about the possibility of doing some filming. It wasn't until 2009, when the District Attorney Robert Morgenthau announced his retirement, that I found my opening. Since he was the one that really gave birth to that unit, I told him it would be his last chance to have this documentary made capturing his legacy. He agreed to do it and laid out some ground rules.
Did you know which cases you wanted to follow going in?
We had to go along with whatever was happening. Part of the agreement was that we could only show the cases that were over by the time we finished filming. We were very lucky with the Rios case that went to trial during our time frame?the one with the prostitute who was raped?because it was a terrific case with great prosecutors.
How long did you film for?
We shot for two years. Some of the cases started much earlier?Natasha's was in 1993?but the trial wasn't until in 2008.
Why did Natasha decide to share her story?
I was introduced to her by two women in the Cold Case unit, with whom she'd participated in a Powerpoint demonstration. They thought she might be willing to talk to a journalist, and she was. It was a combination of factors. She was ready. She knew me and trusted that would I do right with her story. Since the film, she has left the museum where she worked to start a foundation that's devoted to helping women who are survivors of sexual violence and ending the backlog of rape kits that have accumulated in so many departments. She's found a new path for her life.
It seems in the film that the majority of the department is female. Do you think there's a reason for that?
There are 40 senior assistant district attorneys there and 28 are women, so they are the majority. There is a scene in the film when Artie McConnell, one of the male prosecutors, has to describe in graphic detail what happened during one of the assaults, and some guys have trouble with that.
How did New York City's sex crime unit get started?
It started in 1974, not by Morgenthau, but since he took it over it went from one person in the unit to 53. He appointed Linda Fairstein to run it and gave it the funding and the staff it needed. He also pioneered the Cold Case unit, which was the first one in the country to use DNA to indict perpetrators who were otherwise unknown.
With the establishment of these units and the passing of non-corroboration and rape shield laws, it seems the 1970s were something of an inflection point for prosecuting sex crimes. What caused that
In large part it was the women's movement. That's where the pressure came from to change these laws. Together with the victims they pressured state legislatures and district attorneys.
In high-profile rape cases, members of the public often express a measure of doubt. Do you know how common false rape claims are?
It's really really really uncommon. The unit does total background checks on all the women who have been sexually assaulted. There was a case when we were covering them when a woman said that she had been sexually assaulted but really it was a drug deal gone wrong. That was a situation where they refused to prosecute. But it's rare that a woman says she's been raped when she hasn?t been. It's such an underreported crime.
In a film like this, how important is it to capture climactic moments in the courtroom?
One rule in New York courts is that witnesses' testimony can't be filmed. I saw it all, but I wasn't allowed to record it. It's a difficult moment and sometimes lawyers for the defendants will take advantage of it to play dirty tricks, as happened in Natasha's case, asking her if she was a virgin when the attack happened. But I think she said it best the day she made her victim impact statement. She said that day her assailant lost and victims won, and it was the first time she felt powerful in a very long time.
The sex crimes unit is fairly high profile, what are the misconceptions people have about it?
The biggest thing that the television shows get wrong is that most of what they show are stranger rapes, and in reality, 80 percent of the assaults this department handles are acquaintance rapes. On TV, it's always some extreme violent act, like a carjacking or someone being attacked with a knife. In reality, very often the woman won't even have physical injuries, especially if there's a weapon involved.
Do you think it's difficult for the defense attorneys to try to invalidate these women's cases and defend people who are very likely to be rapists?
I got to know the defense attorney in the Rios case pretty well, and she even came to watch the film in my office. She told me that she couldn't wait to get away from that guy. Immediately after the verdict, he asked to appeal and she told him, "You can appeal all you want, but you will never see me again." He was a despicable man, who'd already been convicted of a rape. But that's all part of the system. They get their day in court too.
Is this the unit that will be prosecuting Dominique Strauss-Khan (the former International Monetary Fund director accused of raping a hotel maid in May of 2011)?
Yes, in fact, Artie McConnell is actually the lead DA from the unit. Attorney General Vance has brought in some big guns with lots of trial experience as well.