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Why Is It So Hard to Bring Rapists to Justice?

A new documentary about a real life Special Victims Unit shows how tough it is to make rapists pay for their crime.

Devoted fans of the popular cop show can probably recite it in their sleep: "In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories."

Those stories on Law & Order: SVU are fiction (although they frequently echo tabloid headlines), but these statistics are not: Every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. One out of six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. But only forty percent of these crimes will be reported. Only six percent of rapists spend a day in jail.

These devastating numbers are at the very soul of a new documentary that offers an inside look at a real-life SVU -- the sex crimes prosecution unit of the New York District Attorney's office, the first of its kind in the country. Produced by Lisa F. Jackson, Sex Crimes Unit premieres on HBO, Monday, June 20, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, and will be repeated throughout the rest of the month and into July. Look for it.

In the interest of full disclosure, Lisa is a longtime friend with whom I began in the television business in Washington, DC, back in the days when 24-hour cable news cycles, American Idol and video on demand weren't even glints in the narrowed eyes of Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about her film, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, a brutal and frank verite examination of the African civil war that has been the deadliest conflict since World War II, with as many as 5.4 million killed and more than 250,000 women and children raped. Herself a rape survivor, she bravely trekked into the heart of the fighting to tell the tale. Now with Sex Crimes Unit, Lisa presents a story she has been longing to bring to the screen for the last fifteen years.

Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau authorized the unit's formation in 1974 with the now famous crime novelist and former prosecutor Linda Fairstein as its first chief. "When I came to the practice of law in 1972, the laws in America, all over this country, were so archaic that the overwhelming number of sexual assault cases were not even able to get into a court of law," Fairstein notes in the documentary. "As recently as 20 years ago, marital rape was not a crime. There was no such thing as stalking, there was no DNA, there was no science to say she's right or she's wrong about identifying her attacker, acquaintance rapes simply weren't prosecuted almost anywhere in America."

Today, Lisa Friel heads the unit. Deeply street smart and an expert in the law (despite, to my aging eyes at least, a more than passing resemblance to Michele Bachmann), she oversees 40 senior assistant DA's with, on any given day, more than 300 pending cases. In the course of filming, these include a nightclub abduction caught on surveillance tape, the perpetrator brazenly carrying the helplessly inebriated victim out of the joint with no one lifting a finger to stop him; a livery cab driver turned predator and the difficult case of a prostitute turned rape victim whose quick thinking and courage results in a twelve year sentence for her attacker. "I am so happy [the jury] saw me as a person, not a prostitute," she tells assistant DA Coleen Balbert. "Nobody deserves to be raped," Lisa Friel says, "no matter who they are and what they do."

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