The Justice Department on Friday sent a letter to the Missoula County Attorney’s Office in Montana alleging that it has uncovered “substantial evidence” that county prosecutors systematically discriminate against female victims of sexual assault.
“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,” wrote Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels for the Civil Rights Division in a statement on the investigation.
As Dana Liebelson at Mother Jones reports, Attorney General Eric Holder launched a federal investigation into the conduct of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and other Missoula authorities in the spring of 2012. Following the investigation, the DOJ issued recommendations to the University of Montana, the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office to increase resources to combat sexual violence. Rather than comply with the recommendations, Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg announced he wanted to take legal action against the DOJ for its findings.
“I think that everything the DOJ is saying about our office is false,” Van Valkenburg said in a statement to Mother Jones. “These people are as unethical as any I have ever seen. They obviously have a political agenda they want to push and the truth does not matter to them.”
Despite Van Valkenburg’s insistence that the allegations against the county are false, the DOJ report cites evidence identifying the appalling treatment of victims of sexual violence, and the disregard for these cases that permeated the attorney’s office.
More from Mother Jones on the findings released by the DOJ:
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.” [...]
The Justice Department also determined that, after a review of police files, “in some cases…Missoula Police officers had developed substantial evidence to support prosecution, but [the office] without documented explanation, declined to charge the case.” 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.
Van Valkenburg told KPAX News last month that rather than comply with the DOJ’s recommendations and look into the allegations that his office systematically discriminated against victims of sexual violence, he wants to file a lawsuit against the DOJ to “save money” and “stand up for what’s right.”
“Sometimes you’re just called upon to have to do something that you might not otherwise want to do because it’s the right thing to do,” he said at the time. “And I really think in this case it’s not only the right thing for this community because we’re going to save some money and we’re going to stand up for what’s right, but we’re doing it for the rest of the entire country.”