In January, Fred Van Valkenburg, the head of the Missoula County Attorney's Office in Montana, denied that his office had systematic issues with prosecuting sexual assault cases. But a letter released by the Department of Justice Friday detailing the results of the DOJ's investigation into MCAO reveals that the opposite is true.
Previously, the Justice Department had investigated and made recommendations for the University of Montana and the Missoula Police Department to improve their handling of rape cases. Though they'd suggested MCAO do the same, they hadn't laid out exactly what their issues with the office were. But the DOJ said Friday that the 20-page letter obtained by Mother Jones explaining the results of their investigation concludes "that there is substantial evidence that the County Attorney's response to sexual assault discriminates against women." Furthermore:
- The County Attorney does not provide Deputy County Attorneys with the basic knowledge and training about sexual assault necessary to effectively and impartially investigate and prosecute these cases;
- The County Attorney's Office generally does not develop evidence in support of sexual assault prosecutions, either on its own or in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies
- Adult women victims, particularly victims of non-stranger sexual assault and rape, are often treated with disrespect, not informed of the status of their case and revictimized by the process; and
- The County Attorney's Office routinely fails to engage in the most basic communication about its cases of sexual assault with law enforcement and advocacy partners.
For their investigation, the DOJ interviewed 30 women who had dealt with MCAO over their sexual assault cases, numerous law enforcement officials, victim advocacy organizations and many police detectives, among others. According to their report, "Women consistently told us that Deputy County Attorneys treated them with indifference or disrespect, and frequently made statements to women victims, advocates, and the public diminishing the seriousness of sexual violence and minimizing the culpability of those who commit it." The DOJ says that MCAO also consistently didn't communicate with victims about the statuses of their cases.
Past the obvious communication issues the office struggles with, the details from the women who spoke with the Justice Department paint an image of a group of attorneys who are unconcerned about the lives of these potential victims – or treating them in an appropriate or professional manner:
One woman reported that the Missoula Police detective in her case informed her that because "no one had a limb cut off and there was no video of the incident," prosecutors "wouldn't see this [the rape] as anything more than a girl getting drunk at a party."
In one instance, for example, a Deputy County Attorney quoted religious passages to a woman who had reported a sexual assault, in a way that the victim interpreted to mean that the Deputy County Attorney was judging her negatively for having made the report. We also spoke to a woman whose daughter was sexually assault, at the age of five, by an adolescent boy. In response to a question about why the perpetrator had been sentence to only two years of community service, the prosecutor handling the case reportedly told the women that "boys will be boys." Advocates told us that Deputy County Attorneys "said terrible things to victims," including saying to one woman in the course of discussing the decision not to prosecute her sexual assault, "All you want is revenge."
The DOJ said that other women had been discouraged from reporting their own rapes because they'd heard about MCAO mishandling the cases they were given. And outside of case-by-case details, the numbers overall don't look good either. The DOJ found that between January 2008 and May 2012, the Missoula police referred 85 sexual assault cases to MCAO. MCAO proceeded to file charges in just 14 out of those 85 cases.
Van Valkenburg is, yet again, fighting back against these claims. Three days before the report was released, Van Valkenburg filed a motion hoping to prove that the DOJ doesn't have jurisdiction over his office, the Missoulian reported. "These are things I have never even heard of," he told the paper. "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." Van Valkenburg also told Mother Jones that those working at the DOJ are "as unethical as any I have ever seen," repeating his previously expressed belief that the office has "a political agenda they want to push."
The communication issues in his office obviously run deep, however. Van Valkenburg told the Missoulian that he took issue with the DOJ not getting in contact with him before releasing their letter, but the Justice Department says they've tried to talk to MCAO "more than a half-dozen times over the past 21 months in an attempt to reach an amicable resolution."
Image via J. Stephen Conn/Flickr