On September 29th, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit aired an episode about the consequences of the backlog of untested rape kits. The episode was inspired by a story told at this year's gala by one of our courageous survivor participants. When Neal Baer, a Joyful Heart Board Member and Executive Producer of SVU, heard about Helena's 13-year wait for her rape kit to be tested, he was moved to create an episode dedicated to elevating the national dialogue about this important issue.
To celebrate the episode and honor our partners in law enforcement and advocacy organizations, Joyful Heart held two special screenings of the episode. On the evening of September 28th, 2010, we gathered in the beautiful Los Angeles-area home of Joyful Heart Foundation Los Angeles Committee member Maryam Lieberman and her husband Josh. We were joined by over 100 guests, many of them learning about the rape kit backlog issue for the first time. Attendees included Joyful Heart Board Members Tom Nunan, Neal Baer, Andrea Buchanan, Jill Eisenstadt-Chayet and Stanley Schneider and Los Angeles Committee members Bridget Gless Keller, Julie Rowen and Maryam Lieberman. Distinguished guests included Vicki Riskin, Susan Rose, Shari Leinwand, Patti Giggins, Sharon Shelton, Greg Matheson, Yvette Sanchez-Owens, Sargeant Dan Scott and Wendy Greuel.
Guests enjoyed the beautiful views from the hills of Los Angeles and a break from near-record heat gave us a beautiful, cool evening. After a brief reception, the event moved indoors for the screening. Maryam and Josh welcomed the assembled guests and Tom Nunan expressed his gratitude for the chance for a community to gather to witness this important episode.
As soon as the episode began, a hush fell over the room as the audience absorbed the enormity of the rape kit backlog and the implications it has for a survivor's pursuit of healing and justice. Afterwards, Neal Baer spoke of how moved he was to be able to witness an audience's reaction to an episode that meant so much to him. Neal spoke movingly of Helena's brave decision to speak publicly about her case. Helena, who was seated in the audience, was given a huge ovation by the attendees.
After the screening, Joyful Heart's Director of Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships, Sarah Tofte, moderated a Q&A session with members of the LAPD, city leaders and social justice groups. The audience asked thoughtful and tough questions about why the rape kit backlog remains unresolved, while also expressing gratitude for the progress Los Angeles is making on its 12,500 backlog of untested rape kits. The evening ended late and many participants commented that they could have stayed for hours to discuss the backlog and how to fix it.
The next evening, September 29th, Mariska Hargitay and the Joyful Heart staff hosted a viewing event at the home of Mariska and Peter Hermann. Their home was filled with members of the Joyful Heart community, New York City officials including Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, advocates and staff from the White House and cast members and principals from Law & Order: SVU, Chris Meloni, Ice-T accompanied by his wife Coco, and Isabel Gillies. Guests also included Debbie Smith and her husband, Rob. A federal DNA backlog grant program, the Debbie Smith Act, is named after Debbie, in honor of her relentless advocacy to eliminate the rape kit backlog.
Guests mingled and got to know one another over drinks and an informal dinner. At 9 p.m., those assembled settled in to watch the episode and absorb the very powerful scenes before them.
During the screening, guests were visibly moved, in particular by the rape kit examination scene. Afterwards, the group gathered together to hear from our distinguished guests and for a discussion on the episode, the rape kit backlog, and next steps moving forward. Representatives from Cy Vance's office, Audrey Moore, Chief of the Special Victims Bureau, Martha Bashford, Chief of Forensic Sciences/Cold Case Unit, and Karen Friedman-Agnifilo, Executive Assistant District Attorney/Chief of the Trial Division spoke about the city's success in eliminating its rape kit backlog of 16,000 kits, discovered in 1999 and resolved in 2003. They also touched on the importance of ensuring that more offenders' profiles are uploaded into the DNA databank system. Currently, New York allows individuals who committed felony's to have their DNA collected. They are hoping to see the law changed to include misdemeanor convictions as well.
Debbie Smith stood up to speak about her story, how her case was affected by a backlog, and what reforms were still needed to fix the system. Identifying herself as "just a housewife from Virginia" who "would have rather taken a zero in class rather than speak up," Debbie spoke bravely and movingly about her experience.
On March 3,1989, Debbie Smith was kidnapped from her home while her husband, a police officer, was sleeping upstairs. She was dragged into the woods behind her Williamsburg, Virginia home and raped. The rapist threatened Debbie not to tell, and reminded her that he knew where she lived. It took six and a half years for the perpetrator to be identified through the DNA database, also known as CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). The man who sexually assaulted her had abducted and robbed two other women. The attacker, who raped two other women after the attack on Debbie, was convicted of rape, abduction, robbery, burglary and larceny. He was sentenced to two life terms plus 25 years in prison.
The audience was moved to tears as Debbie spoke of why rape kit testing matters, and the fact that rape kits are not just "pieces of evidence" but "lives and stories of real people."
Following the speakers, we held a spirited question and answer session for about 45 minutes, closing only due to the late hour. Guests left with a sense of energy and purpose about doing whatever we can to eliminate the rape kit backlog and bring justice and healing to survivors.
To learn more about the backlog of untested rape kits as well as the efforts of Joyful Heart and our partners to eliminate it, please visit our new advocacy microsite: endthebacklog.org.