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Nicolais: Trying to “do better” for sexual assault victims

Featured in Netflix’s Unbelievable series, the manhunt for a serial rapist in Colorado serves as just a backdrop to the real story.

I’m a sucker for a good television series. I get sucked in by well-written story arcs and the evolution of complex characters. That’s what I hoped to find in Netflix’s new limited series Unbelievable. I came away shaken, but hopeful.

Embarrassingly, I did not know the premise of Unbelievable before I began watching; I’d just seen some positive Twitter feedback.

Mario Nicolais

It’s embarrassing because it is an only nominally fictionalized account of a monster who raped multiple women across the Denver Metro Area and the 2011 manhunt led by two female detectives to find him.

As it turns out, the rapist lived almost down the street from me in Lakewood. That certainly sent shivers down my spine and spurred me on to an intensive Google map search.

But while the Toni Collette and Merritt Weaver act out the buddy cop storyline perfectly, what really shook me took place more than a thousand miles away. Running parallel to the detectives’ dogged pursuit narrative is the story of 18-year-old Marie Adler in a northern suburb of Seattle during 2009. The man who terrorized Colorado woman began by raping Adler in Washington.

Despite the horrific violence of the attack, it only began Adler’s suffering. A few minor incongruencies as she retold her story compounded by unfortunate concerns raised by people close to Adler led detectives in her case to doubt the rape took place.

Letting a pre-conceived conclusion become the lens through which they viewed the entire case, the detectives saw only evidence that supported their beliefs. Rather than believe Adler, they bullied her into recanting and eventually charged her with false reporting.

As Adler’s counselor succinctly deduced in a later episode, “So, basically, you were assaulted twice. Once by your attacker, then again by the police.”

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That in a nutshell is the most terrifying part of the entire series. It also happens to be the most important lesson of the #MeToo era; believing sexual assault victims must be the guiding principle behind any investigation. Simply dismissing their stories creates a second, possibly more damaging trauma and discourages other victims from coming forward.

As Adler’s experience conveyed, that mistake is not just made by misogynists and malevolent police. The lead detective in her case was instead just incompetent and pathetic, unprepared to perform the task before him and susceptible to significant errors.

As the series pointedly sets out, if he had believed her and followed the hard evidence, he may have saved other women from a similar fate.

Obviously not every investigation suffers from this failing. As the detectives who caught Adler’s rapist demonstrate, good police still do good investigations.

But until every investigation begins with every officer believing every victim, there is definitionally more improvement to be made.

To be clear, the story told in Unbelievable is not a work of fiction written to match the current political environment. It portrays real events with a cinematic overlay to make them flow more smoothly than the fits and starts that occur in real life.

In fact, reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning long-form news story that inspired the series, it seems Netflix hardly waivered from what actually happened.

The showrunner only chose to change the names to avoid broadcasting the names of real people to their huge subscriber base. All except Adler.

Fittingly, the strong young woman who police believed made up her story did not need to hide behind a pseudonym. If you’re looking for hope in this awful story, that is the best place to look.

Marie Adler survived a brutal rape, police incompetence and coercion, and the viral outrage of a community who cast her aside. She not only survived but admonished the lead investigator in her case — and by proxy each of us — to “do better.”

As we continue to struggle with the best way to deal with sexual assault as a society, we should remember her story when faced with seemingly impossible choices. Using her strength as a guide, we should have the requisite ability to make the difficult changes that are necessary.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq

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