Montana prosecutor disputes federal report on sex-assault allegations
The latest blow landed when Justice Department investigators released a 20-page report saying the Missoula County prosecutor’s office had disregarded sexual assaults to the point that it was placing “women in Missoula at increased risk of harm.”
The New York Times
MISSOULA, Mont. — For three years, this college town in the hills of western Montana has lived under the shadow of stories of rapes gone unpunished and complaints that officials minimized or ignored reports of sexual assaults, especially if the suspects played for the University of Montana Grizzlies, the popular football team.
The latest blow landed over the winter when federal investigators released a 20-page report saying the county prosecutor’s office had disregarded sexual assaults to the point that it was placing “women in Missoula at increased risk of harm.”
The accusations were vivid and damning: The Justice Department described accounts of a victim who had been told, “All you want is revenge,” and said a prosecutor had told a mother that “boys will be boys” after an adolescent’s sexual assault of her 5-year-old daughter.
But rather than bringing about contrition and vows to reform, the investigation set off what legal observers call a remarkable standoff between the elected county attorney, Fred Van Valkenburg, and the Justice Department.
Saying his office has done nothing wrong, Van Valkenburg has gone to court against top federal judicial officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, to ask a federal judge to halt the inquiry. He argues that the Justice Department had no legal authority to swoop in and investigate his office.
It is an unlikely public battle for an elected Democrat who has held office for 15 years and twice voted for Barack Obama. Van Valkenburg said Holder was an “embarrassment” and a “bad guy” whose investigators had lied about how his office prosecutes sex crimes.
“It’s very disturbing that the Department of Justice would do this,” Van Valkenburg said. “They don’t care about individuals like me. They don’t care about a town like Missoula.”
Low prosecution rate
Federal authorities said they were simply trying to fix what they described as a litany of problems in the prosecutor’s office, including what they called an “extremely low” prosecution rate for sexual assaults. In one case, a man confessed to raping a woman who was unconscious, but prosecutors from Van Valkenburg’s office said there was insufficient evidence to file charges, the Justice Department reported.
Overall, the Justice Department found that county prosecutors had pursued charges in 14 of the 85 sexual-assault cases that the police had referred to them.
“There are inadequate investigations, failures to prosecute and in general they have undermined the safety of women in Missoula,” said Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. She said federal authorities had sought to resolve their concerns but had been rebuffed and were willing to take legal action against the county attorney’s office.
Two related federal investigations into Missoula’s Police Department and the University of Montana concluded last year with agreements between local officials and the Justice Department. Included were vows to improve how local authorities handled reports of sexual assaults and the hiring of independent overseers to monitor their efforts.
Van Valkenburg has rejected any such settlement. He has refused to hand over his case files to federal investigators, citing confidentiality concerns, and said the federal authorities were wrong to issue the excoriating list of findings against his office in February.
The confrontation has again brought Montana under scrutiny over how its legal system treats women who are sexually assaulted. Seven months ago, in an unrelated case in eastern Montana, Judge Todd Baugh was widely condemned for saying a 14-year-old girl had been partly to blame in a statutory rape case involving one of her high-school teachers, Stacey Dean Rambold.
In Missoula, some officials worry that Van Valkenburg is inviting an unproductive and expensive legal fight. Missoula’s mayor and its new police chief published an op-ed newspaper article in The Missoulian that had the effect of distancing their responses from the prosecutor’s office.
Time to move forward
Two Democrats hoping to succeed Van Valkenburg as county attorney — he is not running for re-election — say it is time to rebuild trust with the community and move forward. Josh Van de Wetering, one of the candidates, said a legal confrontation would be costly while the “very real problem of appropriately addressing sexual assault in our community seems to have taken a back seat.”
In late 2011, The Missoulian, which has uncovered many of these stories, published an account from a student who described how she had been sexually assaulted by football players after passing out at a house party. Afterward, a university official sent out an email wondering whether the woman’s public discussion of her case had violated the student code of conduct. No charges were filed.
County prosecutors say they have tirelessly pursued sexual-assault cases, even in the face of skeptical juries that acquitted defendants, like a former Grizzlies quarterback who was acquitted of rape in March 2013.
Prosecutors said it was often difficult to persuade 12 jurors if a case did not fit their preconceptions of what constitutes rape: if no brutal force was involved, or if the victim and the assailant had been friendly or intimate in the past. They said their prosecution rate was higher than rates in major metropolitan areas like San Diego and Salt Lake counties and their conviction rate was slightly higher than estimated national averages.
They said the low rates reflected the complexities of prosecuting sex crimes: In many cases, there is no physical evidence or victims cannot remember whether or how they were assaulted. “It’s a reflection of how difficult these cases are,” Van Valkenburg said.