Trigger Warning: This piece does include some excerpts from the Department of Justice report that describe descriptions of sexual assault.
The Department of Justice released its report yesterday about the total failure of the Missoula County Attorney’s office to prosecute and assist victims of sexual assault. It’s a harrowing read, about a department often more interested in challenging the claims of sexual assault victims than in prosecuting those responsible. It’s also a clear indication that County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg must go—and those running to succeed him need to be investigated for their behavior while working in his office.
It’s time for the Missoula County Commission to rescind their decision to give Van Valkenburg $50,000 to sue the Department of Justice for investigating his broken office—and time for Missoula County to take the same steps taken by the University of Montana and the Missoula police—and cooperate with the Department of Justice.
Van Valkenburg and his office have failed the victims of sexual assault in Missoula County, and those failures are rooted in what appear to be deep-seated sexist attitudes and an almost total misunderstanding of sexual assault prosecutions, as the DOJ report reveals.
The most astonishing statistic from the DOJ report is that the Missoula County Attorney’s office prosecuted less than 17% of the cases referred to them by the Missoula Police. A referral from the police is a sign they believe that a crime has been committed and that sufficient evidence exists to pursue charges.
Those are simply astonishing numbers, reflecting an unwillingness on the part of the County Attorney to believe in non-stranger sexual assault. Some of the specific cases reported by the DoJ reflect an appalling lack of compassion and competence from the Missoula Co. Attorney, including failing to prosecute one man who confessed to sexual assault and another who assaulted a mentally ill victim:
The DOJ concludes that the decision not to prosecute these cases is rooted “at least in part from unlawful bias against women,” violating the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clauses. Those who filed charges of sexual assault were dismissed for reasons like “there was no video” and because they were “girl[s] getting drunk at a party.”
The DOJ report also found that Van Valkenburg’s office violated Montana law, by often not meeting with victims of felony assaults, and that when they did, the women were greeted by meetings in which the women were “offended, disregarded, and disbelieved by prosecutors.”
The report notes that one woman who reported a sexual assault was read Bible verses, another mother of a five year old girl was told “boys will be boys”, and another was accused of seeking “revenge.” Other women reported feeling “judged for their sexual history” and that prosecutors met with them, but didn’t seem to believe their reports.
That has led women to stop pursuing prosecution for sexual assault, for fear that they will be victimized again:
It’s often incredibly difficult for victims of sexual assault to file a police report, and the Missoula County Attorney’s office has only made it more difficult.
In sum, the DOJ report shows a County Attorney’s Office unwilling to prosecute sexual assault cases, even when the Missoula Police brought confessions, hostile to women, and permissive of a culture that tolerates mistreatment of victims. They’ve also violated state and federal law, as well as the Constitution. The office under Van Valkenburg, has failed to train its attorneys, failed to protect victims of crime, and failed to make Missoula a safer place.
Despite all of this evidence, Van Valkenburg seems far more interested in public perception than law enforcement. He whined to the Missoulian that:
“For the DOJ to dump this report on the news media at virtually 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, three days after we have filed a complaint for judicial relief, is totally irresponsible.
“They are trying to manipulate the news in a very, very unfair fashion.”
Even worse, Van Valkenburg responded by suggesting that the claims against his office were “lies,” repeating the very allegation the DOJ report demonstrates, that his office responds to sexual assault victims by calling them dishonest. He told the Missoulian:
“These are things I have never even heard of,” he said. “It is impossible to believe these things are true. This is not how the Missoula County Attorney’s Office conducts itself. These are half-truths, mistruths and maybe even outright lies.”
That a man who once said his office prosecutes sexual assault cases “in spare time” would be so tone deaf as to complain about media coverage in the wake of the very real damage to crime victims and his community as a whole shouldn’t be surprising, but it does offer evidence certain that it’s well past time for this self-promoting fool to leave office and for the Missoula County Attorneys to work with the Department of Justice to fix a broken process and culture.