For the third week of its Summer Documentary Series, HBO airs director Lisa F. Jackson's fascinating Sex Crimes Unit about the historic changes and remarkable individuals inside the Manhattan District Attorney's Sex Crime Unit. And while fictionalized versions of it have continued to transfix the American public thanks to the enduring popularity of procedurals like Law & Order, Jackson manages to effectively pull aside the curtain and offer up a real keyhole glimpse into the work of a group of individuals working some of the toughest cases imaginable.
Led by their chief Lisa Friel, the staff consists of some 53 dedicated public servants who track any of the 300 cases pending daily. Thanks to Jackson's camera, we're able to see the day-to-day reality of Friel and her (mostly female) fellow attorneys as they work a job defined by suffering and exposing some of the most heinous crimes. Most surprisingly, though, is the fact that she manages to also show the documentary's participants as very real human beings who also fret about ordering donuts while on a coffee run and bond over a shared affinity for the VH1's Rock of Love. While it shouldn't be particularly shocking that criminal attorneys can also joke about trashy TV, Jackson manages to frame her subjects with a warmth and intimacy that nicely balances the rest of the film's heavy matter.
Ourside of Friel and her staff of assistant district attorneys, the doc traces two fascinating rape cases that also help bookend the history of the Sex Crimes Unit. First, there's the horrifying tale of Natasha Alexenko who was brutally raped back in 1993 at gunpoint in her New York City apartment after coming home late at night from her veterinary job. Her rape kit had been sealed and stored away for nine years after no suspect was found until the introduction of the DNA matching system CODIS into the New York legal system effectively changed things. In the case of Alexenko, a hit popped up on her cold case requiring her to eventually testify in front of her rapist 15 years to the day of the crime. Framed by her sunny, blonde curls, current day Alexenko tragically narrates the impact of the rape on her budding, young life in New York and what ran through her mind walking into the courtroom so many years after the fact to help convict her attacker.
The Sex Crimes Unit was first authorized in 1974 by former Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau who describes the early days running the first unit dedicated to the prosecution of sexual assault in the United States as essentially requiring he and his staff teach themselves how to do the job. And even after its formation, there were still numerous legal hurdles in the way of actually prosecuting rapists. Namely, we learn, the greatest issue was the fact that the state of New York required victim's testimony to have corroboration — testimony from someone other than the victim — in order to be prosecuted. This meant that in the case of sexual assault there was almost entirely never a way to take a case to court until the state legislature voted to remove the outdated law in 1974.
Meanwhile, advances like DNA testing has also led Friel's team to a young New Yorker named Rios who stands trial for raping a prostitute. The duration is chronicled by Jackson, including deputy chief Coleen Balbert's dogged determination through the seven month trial as she builds her case, works with the victim, and explains many of the harsh realities involved in prosecuting rapists. And through her tearful phone conversations and sharp-as-a-tack expertise, it's clear she and her staff have gleaned a great deal from having gone to battle inside the courtroom over the years.
The heart-racing drama of the Rios trial, intercut with Alexenko's tragically prolonged ordeal, shows the men and women of the Sex Crimes Unit in startlingly real terms. We see them dismiss a case for lacking proper evidence, talk about the importance technological advances like camera phones and surveillance video have played, and hint at the absolute agony of sexual assault cases involving children. And when Jackson shows the grainy security video from one case where a man literally dragged a drunk woman from inside a bustling nightclub, away from where she was resting alone, down numerous flights of stairs, and into a cab without a single person noticing or stopping him, the reality of how much has changed for these prosecutors in a few, short decades becomes even more startling.