Two stories from the Montana press this week make it clear why survivors of sexual assault might be disinclined to report their attacks to law enforcement. They will not only be subjected to intense scrutiny, potential public shame, and disbelief from the legal system designed to protect them, all at a time of potentially severe emotional distress, but have to endure the possibility that their attackers will receive minimal sentences even after a determination of guilt has been made.
From the Bozeman Chronicle:
A Belgrade man who admitted to raping two women he knew was sentenced Monday to three months in jail followed by probation.
It’s even worse. His defense attorney requested a deferred sentence, because, at thirty, the “youthful” offender deserved an opportunity “to show your honor what kind of man he is,” and claimed that he had been accountable the entire time. One of Mr. Graveley’s supporters in court demonstrated that sense of total accountability, telling the judge that “From what I know about the case, I don’t feel like this was a full-on rape.”
That a person in 2016 could believe that some cases of sexual assault are “full-on” and some are apparently not makes a compelling case for instructive sentencing that sends an unambiguous message about consent and assault.
From the Missoulian today:
Vayeeleng Moua, a former Missoula County Youth Court officer, won’t spend a day in prison for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. At the end of a hearing on Thursday, District Court Judge James Manley of Lake County gave the convicted child molester a six-year deferral of sentence for felony sexual assault of a minor, lower than the mandatory minimum for that crime.
In this case, the judge decided that it was enough punishment for Moua to face the shame of what he had done:
Manley said the shame Moua brought onto his family and his Hmong culture, as well as the loss of his career, was punishment for his crime. “Nothing I do to punish Mr. Moua will be as much as he will punish himself,” he said.
The judge made this determination even though three relatives of the young woman who brought the charges against Moua testified that he had had inappropriate contact with them and deserved jail time for the damage he had done to the thirteen-year-old girl.
During the sentencing, local Missoula defender of accused rapists Dr. William Stratford testified that Mr. Moua was a great guy and intimated that the other women were lying:
Forensic psychiatrist and Moua family friend Dr. William Stratford said before the conviction, there was “not a better citizen in this town” than Moua. When asked by Olson what he thought of the other women who had come forward saying Moua had had inappropriate contact with them in the past, Stratford said it didn’t effect (sic) his opinion, adding that “allegation can be fact or fantasy.”
That Dr. Stratford was the same person who determined that the accuser in the Jordan Johnson case was not suffering from PTSD, despite never having examined her, seems not to have affected the judge’s perception of his testimony in this case.
I’m a Tolstoyan when it comes to justice, and believe that much of what we do when we incarcerate people is damaging to individuals and society, but some crimes deserve serious punishment, if only to send a message that rape and culture that permit it cannot be tolerated. For two judges in two Montana cities to reach the same conclusion about sexual assault, that the perpetrators have suffered enough, in the same week sends a dangerous message that will discourage sexual assault survivors from coming forward. As state prosecutor Ole Olson said in the Missoula case:
without some type of incarceration, he would have a hard time telling victims of similar crimes that it was worth the pain of going through a court case if the end result was a person not being put behind bars.
In a state that regularly imprisons people for drug possession and even small-scale thefts, how can we permit sexual violence to remain unpunished? It’s an epidemic in our communities and a blight on our legal system that seems unwilling or unable to see how serious the problem is.