A dynamic fairly unique to the U.S. system of justice is the extensive impact that victim advocacy has on policy, legislation, and funding. Having lived and worked abroad for more than a few years, I’ve been struck by the extent to which victim’s voices elsewhere fail to resonate with decision makers the way they do in the United States. It’s not that victim advocacy is nonexistent in other parts of the world but the impact victims have in the U.S. for the cause of justice can be extraordinary.
Natasha Alexanko is one of those voices fighting for justice. While the community of DNA activists is already well represented by tireless advocates like Debbie Smith who has battled for years to ensure sufficient DNA funding and Jayann Sepich who criss-crosses the country to promote arrestee testing, Natasha has made the commitment to dedicate her time, effort, and her story specifically to the elimination of backlogged rape kits. A victim whose rape kit sat untested for nine years, Natasha has started Natasha’s Justice Project, dedicated to eliminating the estimated 200,000 kit backlog of rape kits through education, advocacy, and public awareness.
Natasha’s story is so relevant and representative of the injustice of untested rape kits that it was used recently to punctuate an HBO film produced on the work of the Manhattan DA’s Office’s Sex Crime Unit. Simply titled, Sex Crimes Unit, the film documents the daily work of prosecutors and investigators navigating the very realistic waters of bringing a massive number of rapists to justice. Natasha’s story is threaded throughout the film, highlighting a particularly difficult aspect of sex crime investigation and prosecution—the cold case. A stranger rape, with little evidence other than DNA, but DNA evidence rendered useless by the failure to have it submitted, analyzed, and entered into CODIS.
What her story highlights, and what she now brings to the advocacy community, is the story behind the headlines or the CODIS statistics. It is the value in all victim advocacy. It is the meaning of solving a case to a victim’s sense of self, of safety, relief of guilt that they could have, should have done something differently. It is the opportunity to have what Natasha called that “transcendent” moment of clarity, and most of all power, from the witness stand. Clarity and power that is denied as long as a case remains unsolved.
In 1993, Natasha was a twenty-year old college student living in New York City, a dream she had maintained her entire life. She was violently raped, sodomized, and robbed at gunpoint by an unknown assailant while walking back to her apartment. Natasha resisted the temptation to shower the evidence away from her violated body and went to the hospital where hospital staff collected evidence for her rape kit. Following her assault, all leads were exhausted by the New York City Police Department and her attacker could not be identified. Natasha’s rape kit sat on a shelf at the New York City Police Department property clerk’s office for the next nine years.
To be clear, Natasha’s case was not the result of a systemic failure to act by police, prosecutors, or the laboratory. (If you read this commentary even occasionally, you know I have no problem pointing out such failure where I think it exists!) These were still the early days of DNA databasing. The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office was not even a part of CODIS yet. Not submitting a rape kit for DNA analysis was an understandable, albeit frustrating, decision for police at that time. If no suspect existed, funds spent on DNA analysis could fairly be considered wasted if no suspect was ever developed through other, more traditional evidence. But again, this was pre-CODIS.