VICTIM/SUSPECT – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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University of Alabama student Emma Mannion went out with a friend to a frat party one night. Later, she called her parents, crying, saying two men had forced her into a car.

Yet when Mannion contacted the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office to report she’d been raped, the detective soon turned the tables.

He didn’t interview the guy whom Mannion’s friend had recorded goofing around with her earlier that night, someone Mannion said had stood guard outside the car while she was attacked.

Instead, interview footage from the powerful new Netflix documentary Victim/Suspect shows him playing hardball: “Did you fight him off? Kick him? Tell him no?” he says. “I do not believe you at all.”

Mannion wound up in handcuffs, charged with filing a false report. While hers is not the most egregious situation explored in the new documentary, it’s the earliest in this vital film—and stunning enough to make viewers’ blood boil.

Shown earlier at the Sundance Film Festival, Victim/Suspect opens in select theaters on May 19 and runs on Netflix on May 23. Produced by Motto Pictures and the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization in Emeryville, California, Victim/Suspect follows one of the center’s reporters, Rachel de Leon, on her first solo project.

What began as a story looking at Mannion’s case and another woman similarly charged by the same sheriff’s office bloomed into a four-year investigation that uncovered more than 200 instances nationwide of police agencies arresting people who report sexual assaults.

Although the majority in the film are women, there is one young man in Wyoming police interview footage to whom an investigator says, “You don’t want to ruin this guy’s life, do you?”

Directed by Nancy Schwartzman (Roll Red Roll), Victim/Suspect is an infuriating yet essential watch exposing institutional and cultural biases, as well as some frankly lazy police work. I was a cops reporter for ten years, and the investigators here are a stain on the good ones.

Among those is retired San Diego detective Carl Hershman, who now teaches investigators how to interview people reporting sex crimes and has served as an expert witness in cases similar to Mannion’s. His sister was raped twice as a teen, and both times, police did nothing, he says. He looks at these other cases, “and I see her.”

De Leon’s editor notes that while they’ll never know what occurred during these intimate moments, they could look at whether the investigations were thorough. The filmmakers follow de Leon as she knocks on doors, treks around the country, meets with reporting victims and their families, and pores through documents and other evidence. To make the investigation manageable, de Leon obtained records on 52 cases. Of those, 32 reporting victims recanted, and fifteen were arrested or had charges pursued against them within 24 hours—much too soon for police to have investigated the initial assault.

More people report sexual assaults than ever before, but agencies often don’t have the staff or the time to investigate them as they should, Hershman says. It’s easier to get someone to recant or close the case by arresting the person reporting the assault, he says.

The film includes statistics on the minuscule amount of false rape reports, contrasting them with the number of assaults each year. Lisa Avalos, a law professor and author at Louisiana State University, and lawyers for some of the women here provide additional context, noting that those accused of making false reports aren’t “strong, confident, middle-aged women,” either. The arrests likely have a “chilling effect” on other victims coming forward because those arrested lose their anonymity, falling prey to online abuse.

Most important, the accused attackers remain at large.

Schwartzman and editors Inbal B. Lessner and Kim Roberts grippingly weave together accounts from several cases and the bombshell police interview footage and recordings. Among the most heartbreaking involves Megan Rondini, who in 2015 accused T.J. Bunn Jr., son of a prominent Tuscaloosa family, of raping her at his home. Rondini met him at a local pub and had gone back to his house. She tells police how he tried to kiss her and later held her down: “I was trying to be nice to him and say my friends are waiting on me, and I need to leave.”

The same local sheriff’s office that interviewed Mannion questioned Rondini for more than two hours, eventually charging her with theft for taking a few dollars from Bunn’s home for cab fare. The detective’s schmoozy interview with Bunn and his lawyer lasts a whopping eighteen minutes, during which they first yuk it up about which fish are biting before the investigator leads with: “So, y’all are having consensual sex…”

Rondini later committed suicide. Her parents sued the University of Alabama, which she attended, and Bunn Jr., settling with both. However, the Alabama Attorney General dismissed their lawsuit against the sheriff’s office and Sheriff Ron Abernathy, one of many law enforcement officials who give de Leon the run-around.

Detective Walberto Cotto Jr. of Bridgeport, Connecticut, is the only investigator from the cases de Leon examined who speaks on the record here, discussing a 2016 case where he charged a woman who reported two college athletes of raping her at a party. Cotto says he often uses a “ruse”—or a lie—to get a reaction out of someone, and while he says his job is “a fact-finding mission,” he’s clearly flustered when de Leon produces paperwork showing that one of the alleged attackers had been previously accused of sexual assault.

This was “not in any evidence I obtained,” he says, excusing himself from the interview to flip through his records. Cotto also admits to never interviewing either accused man, although his interview footage with the woman shows him putting a hand on her knee, which is questionable at best.

De Leon makes an admirably dogged audience surrogate. She discusses not thinking of herself as an advocate for her sources but as someone who keeps an open mind.

For that, Mannion is grateful. Now a dance teacher in New Hampshire, she says her healing skyrocketed through retracing her steps and reviewing the evidence with de Leon. “[She’s] … done the legwork the police should have done.”

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.