Dick Wolf Fights Crime in a New Show That Helps Assault Victims

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - Season 16
Michael Parmelee/NBC
Dick Wolf, Mariska Hargitay

Dick Wolf’s long-running NBC drama Law & Order: SVU has highlighted the real-life problem of the nationwide rape-kit backlog, which leaves the DNA evidence from thousands of sexual assault cases collecting dust on police station shelves while suspects roam free. Now, another Wolf series, TNT’s unscripted Cold Justice: Sex Crimes, is trying to do something about it.

The show, a spinoff of Cold Justice (which investigates unsolved murders), follows former Harris County, Texas, prosecutors Casey Garrett and Alicia O’Neill as they assist local law enforcement in focusing on unsolved sexual assault cases (this usually entails finally testing the DNA in rape kits).

“There are over 80,000 rape kits that were untested,” Wolf says. “There are now programs going on in various cities to get these tested. But it is an incredible boon to law enforcement and justice in general that this focus has turned out to an unexplored resource in terms of taking people off the streets.”

After just 10 episodes, the show has already led to 10 arrests, two confessions, two indictments and one conviction.

That first conviction happened last month, and took place in Flint, Mich. (where episodes two and three of Sex Crimes‘ freshman season took place). Marcel Robinson was found guilty of 1st Degree Criminal Sexual Conduct, assault to do great bodily harm, assault with intent to do penetration and unlawful imprisonment.

“I never expected these kinds of results,” Wolf says. “There are not many shows that are doing God’s work, but everybody involved with this is incredibly proud of the results. People are not getting away with it. I love my scripted shows, obviously, but this is a different pond to be swimming in, and it’s incredibly gratifying.”

SVU star Mariska Hargitay has been at the forefront of raising awareness and funds to end the rape-kit backlog for years. She’s not involved in Sex Crimes—“We keep her busy,” Wolf says of her SVU duties—but has been “very supportive,” he adds.

Wolf says police departments have cooperated with Sex Crimes so far, even though there’s some embarrassment attached to the fact that it’s taking a TV show to help reduce the rape kit testing backlog.

“We are getting more cooperation than I might have suspected to begin with,” he says. “It’s not a question of embarrassment. Usually 99% of the time it’s a result of money and the fact that you can’t get the test back without somebody paying the cost. I have not gotten the feeling that police departments feel they won’t participate because they screwed up. That’s not what we’ve been saying. This is an unexploited investigatory tool. I hate to put it this bluntly, but what is the price of justice? I think people are seeing that it’s worth paying that price to put rapists and especially serial rapists behind bars.”

Wolf’s stable of reality shows will soon include the recently announced Law & Order: You the Jury, a live NBC show in which viewers weigh in on cases. “This is an opportunity for people to see high-profile cases,” he says. “And intermittently, it’s not just going to be them deciding whether the plaintiff or defendant wins. During the show they’re also going to be able to comment. It’s a little bit bread and circuses, but I think it’s going to be enormously entertaining.”

As for bringing the original Law & Order (which ended in 2010) back as a limited-run series, Wolf says he’s still trying to wrangle some of the old cast. “It’s not easy,” he explains. “You are dealing with very successful people who have a variety of other projects going on. Anthony Anderson told me he wants to do it, but he’s on a hit show [black-ish]. So these are questions for their lawyers and agents. How many episodes will they be able to do? It’s like rubbing your head and stomach at the same time—while dancing.”