You know what it means when we break out the Emergency Kittens, folks. This time around, they are there to help you get through your rage while you read this Mother Jones story about the Department of Justice’s probe of the Missoula, Montana, County Attorney’s Office, which found that when prosecutors bothered to pursue sexual assault cases at all, they “often [treat] these victims with disrespect” and occasionally don’t even prosecute cases for which there are eyewitnesses or even confessions. The DOJ sent a letter to the prosecutor’s office Friday, informing them of the investigation.
Jocelyn Samuels, the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, released a statement Friday on the DOJ investigation:
“We uncovered evidence of a disturbing pattern of deficiencies in the handling of these cases by the County Attorney’s Office, a pattern that not only denies victims meaningful access to justice, but places the safety of all women in Missoula at risk.”
Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg denied the accusations in an email to Mother Jones Saturday, claiming that “everything the DOJ is saying about our office is false” and that “these people” are pushing a “political agenda” in their investigation. Van Valkenberg also claimed that the DOJ had made “no effort whatsoever” to inform him that the report was about to be released. A DOJ spokeswoman told the magazine that the department had attempted “more than a half-dozen times over the past 21 months” to reach an “amicable resolution” with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, but that’s different from telling Van Valkenburg that they were going to release a report about all that, now isn’t it?
The investigation of the County Attorney’s Office is a follow-up to the DOJ’s earlier investigation of terrible handling of sexual assault cases at the University of Montana; as a result of that investigation, the University and the Missoula police entered into agreements with DOJ to prevent and more effectively handle rape cases. The DOJ recommended a similar agreement with the County Attorney’s Office, but instead of implementing reforms, Van Valkenburg claimed that since the Justice Department never issued a report like it had for the university and city police, there was nothing that needed fixing. Then he sued the DOJ, claiming they were exceeding their authority. And so now Justice is releasing its report and saying that the prosecutor’s office failed to cooperate with the investigation.
And there are some fine “Oh, for fuck’s sake” allegations (and remember, kittens):
According to the Justice Department’s letter, in one instance, a deputy county attorney in Missoula allegedly quoted religious passages to a woman who’d reported sexual assault “in a way that the victim interpreted to mean that the Deputy County Attorney was judging her negatively for have made the report.” In another case, the Justice Department spoke to a woman whose daughter was sexually assaulted, at the age of five, by an adolescent boy, who was sentenced to two years of community service for the crime. A prosecutor handling the case allegedly told the mother that “boys will be boys.” Another sexual-assault victim discussing prosecution options was allegedly told by a deputy county attorney, “All you want is revenge.”
And there’s more — lots of women claiming that based on the prosecutor’s reputation for not pursuing sexual assault cases, they never bothered coming forward, including one victim, a clinical psychologist who counseled rape survivors, who
allegedly told the Justice Department that after she, herself, was sexually assaulted, she was reluctant to have her case prosecuted, given the “horrendous” stories she’d heard.
But you know how it is — just her word against the prosecutors’ reputation for doing nothing. And then there’s the police investigations that presented solid cases with substantial evidence, but the Missoula County Attorney’s Office took a pass on actually prosecuting:
According to the DOJ, in one case, police obtained a confession from a man who admitted to raping a woman while she was unconscious, and recommended that he be charged with rape and car theft. The prosecutor’s office allegedly declined to bring charges, citing “insufficient evidence.” In another case, a man admitted to having sex with a mentally ill woman, and said that at some point she asked him to stop and said that he was hurting her—but he wasn’t sure when he’d stopped. The police also recommended rape charges in that case, and the prosecutor declined to bring charges, according to the Justice Department. The DOJ determined that the prosecutor’s office declined to prosecute “nearly every case” involving nonstranger assaults on adult women who had a mental or physical disability, or who were intoxicated by drugs or alcohol.
Without further evidence, it would of course be unfair to suggest that the County Attorneys have any problems with women or victim-blaming, although there is perhaps an argument to be made that the entire office is full of misogyny and fail.
So you can see why people in the County Attorney’s Office might feel a bit put-upon by all that unfair criticism, which is why Van Valkenburg is continuing with his lawsuit against the DOJ, which he doesn’t want snooping around, not that he has anything to hide. in a statement to MoJo in January, Van Valkenburg insisted that everything was just peachy in Missoula, so don’t believe the hype:
“The Missoula Police Department and our office have done a very good job of handling sexual-assault allegations regardless of what national and local news accounts may indicate.”
They had a slight messaging malfunction, but … uh, everything’s perfectly fine now. They’re fine. They’re all fine there now. How are you? Also, please leave them alone forever, nothing to see, OK?