HBO’s Sex Crimes Unit: everyone deserves justice for rape

The HBO documentary Sex Crimes Unit premiered this month recounting the history of the Manhattan sex crimes unit. The Manhattan sex crimes unit, the first such unit in the country, was established in 1974 with longtime Manhattan District Attorney Richard Morgenthau at the helm. In 1970, prior to the creation of the sex crimes unit, there were 1000 cases of rape in New York City but as few as 18 rapes actually made it into a court of law. The documentary shows the day-to-day process of the district attorneys as they prepare rape cases and take them to trial.

There were two things that struck me about this documentary: one of the rape cases they chose to show at trial was that of a prostitute and the conversations that the attorneys in the DA’s office have that basically dispel many misconceptions that the general public may have about rape.

In the case profiled where the victim is a prostitute, the deputy chief Coleen Balbert (who was also the prosecutor in the NYPD rape cops trial) goes through the process of the seven months of trial preparation up through the verdict.

One of the most interesting scenes in Sex Crimes Unit is a discussion between the unit chief Lisa Friel and Balbert after jury selection where they go through the different arguments that jurors make in order to place the blame on the victim. Specifically, in this case the victim was a prostitute, so many of the female jurors made the argument that if the victim had not been out there selling her body for money then she would not have been a victim. Friel makes the critical point that many women are even harder on victims because psychologically women believe that if they acknowledge that a woman’s behavior did not contribute to her being victimized then they too are vulnerable. This is what is known as the Just World Theory, the idea that people get what they deserve and that if something bad happens to you, you somehow are responsible.

Another story profiled in the documentary is that of Natasha Alexenko. Alexenko is rape victim whose case was one of the first prosecuted by the indictment of a DNA profile by the sex crimes unit’s cold case division, which went through old rape kits to search for DNA matches when the technology became available around the year 2000. Alexenko, who was raped in 1993, testified at the trial once the DNA was matched to a suspect in 2008. Alexenko said that her testimony at her rapists’ trial was the moment she took all the power back from her attacker. Her story, paired with that of the trial of the prostitute, is powerful in that it not only shows victims of all types during the recovery process, but the difference in the two cases exemplifies that fact that anyone can be raped and everyone deserves justice.

This documentary should be required viewing for everyone. Show it to your sisters, cousins, friends, and uncles and aunts.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted July 14, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    As someone who does not have cable and relies on Hulu I’ve been trying really hard to figure out how I can view this documentary. I also put on a 32-hour basic sexual assault awareness training for work and I would love to get in touch with someone, anyone, about whether or not I’d be able to show this for that training. Any suggestions anyone has would be very helpful!

    • Posted July 15, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Sarah,
      I can help you and would be happy to do so. Please send an e-mail request to Megan at NatashasJusticeProject dot com. Natasha’s Justice Project was started by Natasha Alexenko, whose story is featured in Sex Crimes Unit, and we have a close relationship with the film’s producer Lisa F. Jackson. The film is not and will not be on Hulu.
      Enjoy your day!

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