With the indictment of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) on charges of attempted rape, the Manhattan Sex Crimes Unit is in the glare of the international spotlight. But the tabloid frenzy over this high-profile case obscures the dogged and far less glamorous work of the prosecutors and investigators of this pioneering crime unit, which investigates roughly 300 cases at any given time.
A new documentary, Sex Crimes Unit, debuting this week on HBO, chronicles the history of the team and follows it through three recent cases, from investigation to trial. (The cases were all prior to the DSK indictment.)
TIME spoke with filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson about the documentary and how the Strauss-Kahn case could change the way victims and the work of the Sex Crimes Unit are viewed by the public.
The film details the evolution of rape laws in New York and the creation of this new unit. How hard was it to prosecute sex crimes before New York changed its laws in 1974?
That stat [in the film]: there were 1,000 rapes reported in New York City in 1974 and only 18 resulted in convictions. There were three very strict requirements: you had to prove there was sexual trauma; there had to be force involved, which means that you had to have a stab wound or some proof that you resisted; and you had to have independent corroboration. You basically needed a witness as to the identity of the assailant. Those three pieces were so hard for attorneys to put together that these cases never got into court.
[The rape shield law] was hugely important because of the cliché that was actually a reality that the woman who was on the witness stand would essentially get raped again. Her entire history, including her sexual history if she had one, would be part of the defense's case in destroying her credibility.
It's clear that investigating and prosecuting these cases is incredibly complex. Do you think your work will affect the way people view highly publicized trials like the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case?
I hope so. I hope that they see, for instance in the DSK trial, the incredible courage it took for the hotel housekeeper to come forward. Sixty percent of these crimes are not reported at all because victims tend to blame themselves and there's that subtle blame-the-victim idea with some jurors. Linda Fairstein, former head of the unit, made the incredible comment that it's the only crime she's ever encountered where the victim is somehow complicit in the crime that's been perpetrated against them. There are still all of these attitudes and prejudices, misconceptions and outright myths, like that you have to have a major injury to have been raped. Juries actually believe that. I hope that it sheds a little light on a crime that is still misunderstood and underreported.
Rape victim and advocate Natasha Alexenko's experience was a central part of the film. How were you able to get her to open up and share so much about such a terrifying experience?
Martha Bashford and Melissa Mourges, the two women in the Cold Case Unit, had handled Natasha's case, and they knew she was willing to put her name to the crime. I got to know her over the course of a year before we did the interview, and we're very close friends. Natasha started her own foundation, so working on the project was a real life-changer for her in a really good way.
In the end of the film where Natasha returns to the building where she was raped, she seems so strong and composed. How big of a role did the conviction in her case play in allowing her to go back there and face that?
She says it and the DAs say it too: that the trial, for many victims, is the moment when they take the power back. All of the power that the rapist held over them, they now have it. To see him put away until 2057 was a huge relief, but to know that she helped them do it that's incredibly empowering.
There's so much hand-holding that there's a very strong bond that the prosecutor establishes with their client, the victim. I saw it over and over and over again. It's like no other crime, and they take that part of their job very seriously.
We get to know these prosecutors on a very personal level: they're talking about Derek Jeter and wondering how they're going to pay for college for their kids. Yet they see horrible things day in and day out. How do they cope?
They take their jobs very seriously and when it's done right, they see that the work they do is really helping the victim take a very major step on the road to closure and recovery. And it can be depressing, it's incredibly stressful, and it takes a long time for the trials to actually roll around. But when they see that victim take control, I think that's an incredibly gratifying moment for them. I think that's the satisfaction that keeps them going. They tell the story, and cameras on, cameras off, they were the same people, which was extraordinary.
You had incredible access to the Sex Crimes Unit, but also the trials themselves. How did you convince everyone to tell their stories?
There was a lot of persuading to be done. I started trying to convince them to tell their story in 1996. Robert Morgenthau was the DA, and Linda Fairstein was the head of the unit. But it's very hard when you have lawyers working on open cases. When I heard that Morgenthau was retiring, I went to him and said, "Everybody's talking about your legacy, but nobody's mentioning what I consider the jewel in your crown, which is championing this unit, starting the Cold Case Unit and doing the John Doe indictments. [A John Doe indictment is one in which prosecutors indict a defendant using DNA evidence even though they haven't been able to ID who the DNA belongs to. Then, if the genetic material is matched to an alleged perpetrator after the statute of limitations runs out, the evidence against them from these earlier cases is viable.]