The following article contains discussion of sexual assault that some readers may find upsetting.
Note: This article contains spoilers for Unbelievable.
Once you've watched all eight episodes of Unbelievable on Netflix, it's easy to see how the show got its name for a variety of reasons. What's most unbelievable of all is how the real-life male detectives who initially worked on Marie's case could treat her so badly when they should have been the ones helping her.
Whether you've watched Susannah Grant's adaptation or read the award-winning article that the show's based on, you'll know that Marie (played by Kaitlyn Dever) was just 18 when a man broke into her apartment and sexually assaulted her while she slept.
What happened when Marie reported the crime?
Instead of being treated like the victim she was, Marie was questioned repeatedly by the two male detectives in charge of her case, who began to poke and prod at inconsistencies in her story. While still dealing with the trauma of what had just happened to her, Marie eventually buckled under the pressure and retracted her statement in a desperate attempt to escape and return home.
After claiming that she'd actually made the attack up in her head, the police then charged Marie with filing a false report, and once news got out about what she'd said, her reputation was ruined. It was only when two female detectives working on another case discovered new evidence that Marie's original claims were vindicated.
In the final episode of Unbelievable, we learn that the incredible police work conducted by Detective Stacy Galbraith ('Karen Duvall' in Unbelievable, played by Merritt Wever) and Detective Edna Hendershot (AKA 'Grace Rasmussen', played by Toni Collette) resulted in an arrest. Marie herself also found some peace of sorts as she ventured off to start a new life with $150,000 awarded to her by the state after settling a lawsuit out of court.
Most of what we see in Netflix's adaptation is true to what happened in real life, and you can read more about that right here. What the show doesn't explore is what happened to Detectives Pruitt and Parker after Marie's case was finally resolved.
Were the male detectives punished for their behaviour?
Known in the real world as Sgt Jeffrey Mason and Detective Jerry Rittgarn, the two detectives who questioned Marie were subjected to both internal and external reviews in the aftermath of this whole ordeal.
According to the Pro Publica article titled 'An Unbelievable Story of Rape', Lynnwood Police Chief Steven Jensen requested an outside review of his department. As a result of this, sex crimes supervisor Sgt Gregg Rinta found that what happened was "Nothing short of the victim being coerced into admitting that she lied about the rape.”
"Bullying" and "hounding" are two words his report used to describe the male detectives who questioned Marie and it goes on to label them further as "coercive, cruel, and unbelievably unprofessional."
An internal review found that the second interview conducted by Mason and Rittgarn was "designed to elicit a confession of false reporting" from Marie and that a call from her foster mother unduly swayed Mason's judgement.
With all of this damning evidence to contend with, you'd imagine that Mason and Rittgarn would have suffered some kind of consequences for how they treated Marie. But not one single officer in the entire Lynnwood Police Department was disciplined for their actions.
What do Manson and Rittgarn have to say for themselves?
The aforementioned Pro Publica article mentions that Mason had only investigated one rape before he was put in charge of Marie's case as lead investigator. Previously, he had only worked on patrol and in narcotics.
Rittgarn was more experienced in that he had worked as a detective for 11 years already, but this experience was mostly limited to cases involving helicopters and the aerospace industry.
Clearly, neither one of these detectives was qualified to deal with sexual-assault crimes in the way that Galbraith and Hendershot were. It should come as no surprise, then, that Mason left that field behind soon after, returning to narcotics to lead his own task force.
Speaking with reporters years later in the very same room where he had once confronted Marie, Mason admitted that "It wasn’t [Marie's] job to try to convince me. In hindsight, it was my job to get to the bottom of it — and I didn’t."
After the truth came out and before she left Washington, Marie visited the Lynnwood police station to confront Mason and Rittgarn. In the report, Marie says that Mason looked "like a lost little puppy," much like the actor who played him did during that same scene in the Unbelievable show.
Marie went on to say that "[Mason] was rubbing his head and literally looked like he was ashamed about what they had done." According to her, Mason apologised, saying he was "deeply sorry," but unlike the show, Rittgarn was nowhere to be seen.
In real life, Jerry had already left the Lynnwood Police Department before Marie's attacker was convicted, and as far as we can tell, he has declined requests to be interviewed in the time that's passed since.
Did Marie's case change police procedure for the better?
T Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, the investigators who broke the story for Pro Publica, also interviewed Steve Rider, the commander of Lynnwood’s Criminal Investigations Division.
Back when the report was published in 2015, Rider described Marie's case as a "major failing" for his department: "Knowing that she went through that brutal attack — and then we told her she lied? That’s awful. We all got into this job to help people, not to hurt them."
Thankfully, the ramifications of this have helped change the way Lynnwood’s Criminal Investigations Division approach crimes of this nature. In addition to extra training for the detectives, investigators must now have "definitive proof" of lying before doubting a rape report, and any accusations of false reporting are now reviewed at a higher level before acted upon.
In the report, Rider says, "We learned a great deal from this. And we don’t want to see this happen to anybody ever again," but this probably won't be the last time that cases of this nature will be mishandled.
According to RAINN, 995 sexual-assault perpetrators out of every 1000 in the US don't serve time – and one of the reasons for this is that victims still worry the police can't or won't help them. Until wider changes are made to the national justice system, cases like the one that Unbelievable is based on could still happen.
Unbelievable is available to stream on Netflix now. You can read the full award-winning article An Unbelievable Story of Rape here.
Rape Crisis England and Wales works towards the elimination of all forms of sexual violence and sexual misconduct. If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can access more information on their website or by calling the National Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999. Rape Crisis Scotland’s helpline number is 08088 01 03 02.
Readers in the US are encouraged to contact RAINN, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline on 800-656-4673.
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