- Associated Press - Sunday, June 19, 2011

NEW YORK — Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s sexual assault case has shoved Manhattan’s sex-crimes prosecutors under a microscope, but they were already getting ready for their close-up.

A documentary film that goes behind their usually firmly closed doors debuts Monday on HBO.

Shot well before the former International Monetary Fund leader’s arrest, “Sex Crimes Unit” is airing just as his case and a closely watched rape trial of two police officers have given the subject a new currency.

“I was very lucky,” filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson says.

She captured a kaleidoscopic look at prosecutors strategizing, visiting a crime scene, picking jurors, solving a cold case and occasionally talking baseball in one of the nation’s most prominent sex-crimes prosecution offices.

Along the way, the documentary peers into the paper-stuffed offices, long workdays and zealous-but-human personalities of prosecutors - some directly involved in Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s or the police officers’ cases - whose real-life jobs often end up echoed in TV drama. Indeed, assistant district attorney Coleen Balbert muses in the documentary about the many times she’s walked past a shoot for the “Law & Order” franchise, which has used the Manhattan DA’s office as a template and local courthouses as a backdrop.

“It’s so glorified on TV,” she says.

In reality, “you know you’re trying to do the right thing, and sometimes, people just don’t care,” including the victims, she adds later. “You definitely need to get thick-skinned.”

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has had a sex crimes unit since 1974 and has called it the first of its kind nationwide. It now has about 40 lawyers and 300 cases at any given time.

Ms. Jackson, whose previous work includes “The Secret Life of Barbie” and “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo,” yearned for years to make a film about the sex crimes unit. She brought it up with then-DA Robert Morgenthau as he prepared to retire in 2009, after 35 years in office.

Prosecutors are often reluctant to discuss their work out of court. Indeed, current DA Cyrus R. Vance Jr.’s administration declined an interview request about the documentary. But Mr. Morgenthau said he didn’t hesitate to OK Ms. Jackson’s project.

“I thought it was important for people to understand how sex crimes are handled,” he said in a telephone interview last week.

His review of the film? “You learn something, and it also grabs you.”

While Ms. Jackson was allowed unusual access, limits included a ban on using footage about any case not resolved when the film was being finalized. Among the cuts were pieces related to the rape case against now-ex police officers Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata, Ms. Jackson said. Mata and Moreno were convicted last month of official misconduct but acquitted of rape and all other charges.

Ms. Balbert, who appears prominently in Ms. Jackson’s film, was a key prosecutor in their trial. The documentary also features two colleagues who have appeared in court on Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s case, sex crimes unit chief Lisa Friel and assistant district attorney John “Artie” McConnell. Ms. Friel, viewers learn, has a sign on her desk saying, “I have flying monkeys, and I’m not afraid to use them!”

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