Netflix’s latest crime documentary isn’t necessarily eye-opening, but its honorable message is something that should be heard either way. This is far from director Nancy Schwartzman’s first work around the complicated and sensitive subject matter of Victim/Suspect, but rather a different side of things. The little over 90-minute series begins with a voice-over phone call from a victim to our protagonist, investigative journalist Rachel de Leon, whose search for the perfect first big story is what we’re following. Is it a case of disbelief, laziness, or naivety that leads to a significantly high number of victims of sexual assault becoming guilty of false reporting? This is the overarching question Rachel seems to be trying to answer throughout the film, with the help of the story of three such victims whose interrogations we get to witness multiple times in the film. Ironically, the percentage of false reporting is minuscule in comparison to the number of victims who come forward with their reports at all. But, as Rachel herself mentions near the end of the film, a lot of the work that she has put in will only matter based on public opinion at the end of the day. At the very least, it’s a stepping stone for future law enforcers to take notes and better themselves. The film also brings focus to the kind of words used by “public servants” to describe the public they need to serve to make the switch from victim to suspect. Disappointingly, but believably, only one of the many cops involved in the cases that Rachel investigates over the course of a few years speaks to her.
Plot Summary: What Happens In ‘Victim/Suspect’?
Rachel de Leon started as a school journalist and soon discovered her interest in wanting to be an investigative detective. She quickly found a position at the Center for Investigative Reporting, her dream workspace, and climbed the ladder to write her first big story. Nikki Yovino’s case was the opening page for Rae’s earnest attempt to bring out the facts about victim-turned-suspects in sexual assault cases across America. Emma Mannion was the next case that occurred thousands of miles away, and Rae decided to look further into it. Quickly enough, she found a set pattern across states with multiple cases. Even without a green light, she continued to investigate, and finally, with the required amount of work, the whole thing was set in motion.
Emma Mannion was 18 when she was assaulted and reported the crime. A man named Jared Akridge investigated Emma’s case and found “inconsistencies” in her story, leading him to consider it a false report. Through the many clips of interrogation footage, we see many victims, including Emma. It is very clear when the cops flip the switch and coax the victims to retract their statements. From saying things like they don’t believe the victim to outright lies about having videos that suggest no misconduct, these are some of the many “tactics” cops use on sexual assault victims. After the victim retracts, it is easy to arrest them for false reporting, and while they’re rotting in jail for no mistake of their own, pictures of them and their full names are made public information by police departments, making other victims completely untrusting of their safety in the hands of law enforcement. Megan Rondini was one such victim who was assaulted by a rich man only 15 months before Emma in the same state. The man Megan referred to as Sweet T was actually TJ Bunn Jr., the son of a powerful family in Tuscaloosa. Megan had taken some money for a cab after he assaulted her, and she had also taken him to her apartment before heading to his house, but because of intoxication, her story was inconsistent.
The majority of the cases that Rae saw were recanted because the cops found inconsistencies in the victim statements. According to experts, of course, there would be no consistency when a victim is drugged or worse in the case of abuse. Megan was too affected, and even though her parents were supportive of her and asked her to go to therapy, after leaving university, she ended up taking her own life seven months after the rape. Carl Hershman, a police officer, was the only person from the department willing to talk about what happened to Megan. He also had great knowledge about her case and many other such cases, making him the perfect person to guide Rae in her work. Another common factor in most of these cases is that when the victim retracts the statement, the suspects are never called for interrogation! In Megan’s case, TJ Bunn even went fishing with his attorney when the investigation was ongoing.
Rae noticed that most of the cases of false reporting were regarding young people who had a relationship or at least a brief encounter with the assailants, but one case was different, and she was able to get a hold of Dyanie Bermeo, who was assaulted by a police officer or someone who had impersonated one. Dyanie wanted to be a law enforcement officer herself, but after her experience, everything changed for her. Dyanie was bashed on the internet too. A common factor in all of these cases is the inconsistency in the police interrogations. Finally, Rae’s story was given the green light to move forward, and she began the real investigation for her article. To turn the tables on a case, the important thing is to prove that there was no rape first and then suspect the victim. Out of 52 cases that Rae and her team investigated, the data showed similar patterns, such as knowing the perpetrator beforehand and inconsistencies. Fifteen victims were arrested for false reporting, and 32 of them recanted their statements. A breakthrough was made in Emma’s case when the police officer said they had found her making out with the assailant before they got into the car in a surveillance video, but no such thing was ever found. This ruse is what made Emma plead guilty, and it was a blatant lie. Rae was able to sue the sheriff’s department for public information and get the surveillance footage, but that one video was never found. Emma and Rae retraced her steps before the crime occurred, another thing never done by the police. In Dyanie’s case, the footage was picked up from a house nearby, but the people of that house were never questioned. They even had a potential suspect, thanks to how detailed Dyanie’s report was, but they didn’t even bother checking his alibi.
Was Rae Able To Find Anything That Could Help Any Of The Victims?
Rae was able to get one police interview, and that too from the officer who opened the gates for her, Detective Cotto, who had investigated Nikki. Cotto had used a “ruse” to force Nikki into “admitting” she was lying, and he reveals this in a very nonchalant manner as if it is not something that needs to be used on suspects of crimes and not victims. His body language with Nikki was inappropriate, and shockingly, she never learned that one of the men Nikki had named had also been previously accused of sexual misconduct, but Cotto had never heard about it, and the man was not in the system either. He had interrogated Nikki, but the two suspects never agreed to talk to him, so it was just left at that. A statement was given by one of them to the school, but that’s it, all leading up to Nikki pleading guilty to falsely accusing two footballers from her school.
In Emma’s case, after figuring out that the police misidentified her in the surveillance video, Emma fought for withheld information that was never shown to her or her team that was “evidence” of her having given consent. Suspects were never even identified in her case. Emma’s case against the state of Alabama was able to completely vindicate Emma of her “crime.” In Dyanie’s case, after spending thousands of dollars fighting for what’s right, the judge believed her, and she was found not guilty of false reporting. With Rachel’s report coming together, she had one question remaining for Carl Hershman. Why did everyone she met care so much? It turns out Carl’s sister was a victim of sexual assault, which completely ruined her life, and all he wants to do is help more people like his sister, who suffer in silence because the police don’t do anything in their favor. According to Carl, arrests are the easiest way out, and that’s why instead of dismissing cases, the victims would often get arrested.
Carl trains soon-to-be detectives on how to treat victims of sexual assault and how different it should be from an interrogation. Most of the cases of recantation are of girls between the ages of 14 and 26; at that tender age, it is very easy to manipulate them and make them change their statements entirely. Emma and Dyanie were both able to talk to some of his trainees and show them what it truly feels like to be told that their stories are unbelievable and false. A victim recanting should not be counted as evidence for a crime not being committed; this is the big change Rae, her team, and everyone in this documentary is hoping for. In the end, Emma declined an overturn of her case because it was she who didn’t mention the lack of evidence when it all happened. The sheriff had shared the footage that corroborated Emma’s story just before Rae’s report came about, but that wasn’t enough either. She continues to appeal to higher courts. Dyanie graduated from school and now hopes to get back on track to become a criminal lawyer. Finally, Megan’s father has set up a fund to support victims of sexual assault.
Rachel’s investigation is categorical, but the question still remains: how many SA victims will come out with their stories, especially after facing the truth of what law enforcement looks like in the American system? After seeing the film, I’m hoping Nancy and Rachel’s efforts make some difference in the system and act as a propeller for change in investigations related to rape victims. In a flood of true crime documentaries, Rachel’s lens may bring something educational to the table, but it might as well be quickly forgotten as a wave of statistical data for those who aren’t experienced in the subject matter. I applaud Nancy’s attempt, but to me, it falls short of having the impact it should. By using Megan, Emma, Dyanie, and Nikki’s stories, Nancy and Rachel were able to provide a platform for these victims to be heard, but who is listening and why?
Victim/Suspect is a 2023 crime documentary film directed by Nancy Schwartzman.