Forty years ago, New York State law required corroboration of every material element of a victim’s account of her sexual assault. Sexual histories were fair game for defense attorneys. Marital rape was not considered a crime and, unlike other violent crimes, rape was subject to a strict statute of limitations.
In 1974, Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau authorized the formation of the first Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit. He explains, “When I came in, there was one person in the Sex Crimes Unit, and now there are 53 people handling sex crimes cases.” Morgenthau and Linda Fairstein, the unit’s first chief,initially struggled to overcome outdated laws and fight for victims’ rights. “We were teaching ourselves how to do this, because there was no model for this work anywhere in America,” notes Fairstein.
Lisa Friel, current chief of the Sex Crimes Unit, oversees 40 senior assistant DAs with more than 300 pending cases on any given day. SEX CRIMES UNIT follows the day-to-day process as Friel is debriefed by and strategizes with ADAs on their cases. Among their shocking stories are a horrifying nightclub abduction caught on surveillance tape, a livery cab driver turned sexual predator and an alleged date-rape case derailed by surprising DNA results.
The film tracks deputy chief Coleen Balbert over seven months as she prosecutes the difficult case of a rape victim who was also a prostitute, showing how she and her team build evidence, visit the crime scene and prepare the victim and other witnesses for a challenging trial.
SEX CRIMES UNIT also tells the story of Natasha Alexenko, a young woman who was attacked while entering her Manhattan apartment building and raped at gunpoint in 1993. She survived, but her assailant escaped.
The Alexenko case was one of the first to be taken on by the Sex Crimes Unit’s cold case division, which was formed in 2000 by assistant district attorneys Melissa Mourges and Martha Bashford under Morgenthau’s direction. One of their advances was the “John Doe” indictment, which meant that in the absence of a suspect, a criminal’s DNA could be indicted, thus stopping the clock on the statute of limitations.
Almost a decade after Alexenko’s attack, with the case nine months from expiration, the cold case unit reopened the investigation. The DNA in her rape kit was analyzed and entered into CODIS, the national DNA database. Four years later, the DNA profile produced a hit, linking it to a suspect and finally giving Alexenko her day in court. She almost fainted when she took the stand and faced her attacker in the courtroom, but returned to testify. He was ultimately convicted and given a maximum release date of 2057.
“In making SEX CRIMES UNIT, I had the great privilege of actually being inside the criminal justice system, observing first-hand the fierce dedication of the men and women whose goal is to deliver justice,” says Jackson. “However, what was most surprising was that although they were tenacious and compassionate and laser-focused, I was able to capture their true humanity in surprising ways: obsessing about TV shows, fretting a child’s college financing, cajoling cops, having babies, talking baseball and worrying about their weight. It’s odd to say that a film about sexual violence can be full of laughter and joy and the infectious pride of doing good work, but that was the reality I found in those cluttered offices.”
Lisa F. Jackson is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose HBO documentary “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo” received the Special Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Her career spans three decades and includes an Emmy® for “The Secret Life of Barbie” in 1999, an Emmy® nomination for “Meeting with a Killer: One Family’s Journey” and numerous credits as both director and editor of projects that aired on PBS, ABC, CBS, MTV and the Hallmark Channel, among others. Jackson has screened her work and lectured at Columbia, Harvard and New York University, and was a visiting professor of documentary film at the School for Visual Arts in Manhattan.
SEX CRIMES UNIT is produced and directed by Lisa F. Jackson; co-producer, Jennifer Ollman; editor, Christina Kaufman; directors of photography, John Hazard and Guy Mossman; original music, M.G. Espar. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.
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