Film spotlights NY sex-crimes prosecutors

A documentary film that goes behind their usually firmly closed doors debuts Monday on HBO


By Jennifer Peltz
Associated Press

NEW YORK — Dominique Strauss-Kahn's sexual assault case has shoved Manhattan's sex-crimes prosecutors under a microscope, but they were already getting ready for their close-up.

A documentary film that goes behind their usually firmly closed doors debuts Monday on HBO.

Shot well before the former International Monetary Fund leader's arrest, "Sex Crimes Unit" is airing just as his case and a closely watched rape trial of two police officers have given the subject a new currency.

"I was very lucky," filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson says.

She captured a kaleidoscopic look at prosecutors strategizing, visiting a crime scene, picking jurors, solving a cold case and occasionally talking baseball in one of the nation's most prominent sex-crimes prosecution offices.

Along the way, the documentary peers into the paper-stuffed offices, long workdays and zealous-but-human personalities of prosecutors — some directly involved in Strauss-Kahn's or the police officers' cases — whose real-life jobs often end up echoed in TV drama. Indeed, assistant district attorney Coleen Balbert muses in the documentary about the many times she's walked past a shoot for the "Law & Order" franchise, which has used the Manhattan DA's office as a template and local courthouses as a backdrop.

"It's so glorified on TV," she says.

In reality, "you know you're trying to do the right thing, and sometimes, people just don't care," including the victims, she adds later. "You definitely need to get thick-skinned."

The Manhattan District Attorney's office has had a sex crimes unit since 1974 and has called it the first of its kind nationwide. It now has about 40 lawyers and 300 cases at any given time.

Jackson, whose previous work includes "The Secret Life of Barbie" and "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo," yearned for years to make a film about the sex crimes unit. She brought it up with then-DA Robert Morgenthau as he prepared to retire in 2009, after 35 years in office.

Prosecutors are often reluctant to discuss their work out of court. Indeed, current DA Cyrus R. Vance Jr.'s administration declined an interview request about the documentary. But Morgenthau said he didn't hesitate to OK Jackson's project.

"I thought it was important for people to understand how sex crimes are handled," he said in a telephone interview last week.

His review of the film? "You learn something, and it also grabs you."

While Jackson was allowed unusual access, limits included a ban on using footage about any case not resolved when the film was being finalized. Among the cuts were pieces related to the rape case against now-ex police officers Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata, Jackson said. Mata and Moreno were convicted last month of official misconduct but acquitted of rape and all other charges.

Balbert, who appears prominently in Jackson's film, was a key prosecutor in their trial. The documentary also features two colleagues who have appeared in court on Strauss-Kahn's case, sex crimes unit chief Lisa Friel and assistant district attorney John "Artie" McConnell. Friel, viewers learn, has a sign on her desk saying, "I have flying monkeys, and I'm not afraid to use them!"

Prosecutors extol the effectiveness of a surveillance videotape against Luis Zambrano, who admitted trying to rape a woman who had passed out at a nightclub. They discuss getting a photograph of a victim to juxtapose with her frantic 911 call in a case against Torkieh Sadagheh, a livery cab driver who ultimately pleaded guilty to raping one passenger and trying to rape another within 40 minutes.

But one of the film's most affecting perspectives comes from Natasha Alexenko, who was raped at gunpoint as a college student by a man who followed her into her apartment building in 1993. Fourteen years later, she got a call from prosecutors saying a DNA sample had matched a suspect, Victor Rondon.

While she had put the case out of her mind, "it, all of a sudden, made me feel: These people still care. They're still working on it," Alexenko said in a telephone interview. Rondon was convicted and sentenced to 44 to 107 years in prison. Alexenko now runs Natasha's Justice Project, which advocates for swift DNA testing of samples collected in rape cases.

The Associated Press doesn't identify sex crime victims unless they agree to it, as Alexenko did.

If the documentary offers an inside view, it's from prosecutors' vantage point — a peeve some defense lawyers have with television and portrayals of the legal system in general, says Elizabeth Kelley, a Cleveland criminal defense lawyer who sometimes blogs about such issues at elizabethkelleylaw.com.

"Sex Crimes Unit" includes just one defense lawyer, who represents a man who is tried and convicted during the film of raping a prostitute. The defendant, Kevin Rios, said the sex was consensual.

"There's no question that it is very geared toward presenting the side of the prosecution. It leaves a lot out, in terms of the reality that not every case is cut-and-dried," his lawyer, Kimberly Summers, said in an interview. But she called the film an interesting look at prosecutors' work.

Jackson said she chose to keep the focus on the DA's office, noting that she also didn't include police.

"I realized there was enough going on — it was a world unto itself there," she said.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press

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