DOJ blasts Mont. state prosecutor over sexual assault cases

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg
CBS affiliate KPAX

The Missoula County Attorney’s Office in Montana has “a general disregard” for sexual assault cases involving female victims; often treating the victims with disrespect, failing to communicate with them or law enforcement handling the case, and frequently declining to pursue charges against suspects even when there is enough damning evidence to proceed, a Department of Justice investigation found.

The DOJ says alleged sexual assault victims described their interactions with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office as “traumatic” and frustrating. Some said they felt as though they were treated with “no compassion,” that they felt “judged,” that the prosecutors acted like they were “forced to speak with them,” or that the prosecutors did not believe them.

The claims were made public Friday in a DOJ letter to Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, the result of a year and a half justice probe that was initially looking into not only the Missoula County Attorney’s Office but also  the University of Montana’s Office of Public Safety and the Missoula Police Department’s handling of alleged sexual assaults against women. The investigation was prompted by community concerns that Missoula law enforcement, including the county attorney’s office, was failing to respond appropriately to reports of sexual assault, both on the university campus and throughout Missoula.

In May 2013, the DOJ reached agreements with the University of Montana and the Missoula Police Department, but the county attorney’s Office has been “unwilling to respond” to proposed “remedies” and has refused to cooperate in the investigation, according to the DOJ letter..

“The County Attorney’s Office’s frequent failure to prosecute sexual assaults of women stands out,” the letter says.

Van Valkenburg said in a statement emailed to Mother Jones on Friday, “…Everything the DOJ is saying about our office is false. 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."

The DOJ’s release of the letter comes just days after Van Valkenburg announced a federal lawsuit against the department on the grounds that no sufficient evidence of wrongdoing had been presented to justify changing policies at his office. The lawsuit also argues the DOJ is overstepping its legal authority, according to CBS affiliate KPAX.

The DOJ’s letter Friday was reportedly the first time any specific findings from the investigation into the County Attorney’s Office was made public.  

Between January 2008 and May 2012, Missoula Police referred 85 reports of sexual assault of adult women to the County Attorney’s Office for prosecution but charges were filed in only 14 of the cases – less than 17 percent, the investigation found.

The DOJ attributes the attorney’s office failure to prosecute to gender bias and a “general disregard” for sexual assault cases and the women who report them.

The letter alleges that in one instance, a Deputy County Attorney quoted religious passages to a woman who had reported being sexually assaulted.

“The woman interpreted this to mean that the attorney was judging her negatively for having made the report,” the DOJ says.

In another instance, a woman whose 5-year-old daughter was allegedly sexually assaulted by an adolescent boy was told, “boys will be boys,” by the prosecutor handling the case, the DOJ says.

And in another example, a Deputy County Attorney told a woman who alleged sexual assault, “all you want is revenge,” according to the DOJ.

One woman, in describing her interaction with a Deputy County Attorney, said she was so frustrated by the way she was treated, she “’would never suggest’ that another woman pursue a sexual assault prosecution in Missoula,” according to the DOJ.

The letter also alleges the County Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute some sexual assault cases even when it had sufficient evidence to proceed, including a confession or an eyewitness.

“Moreover, we found no indication that the County Attorney’s Office had given any guidance to Missoula Police detectives about how to develop evidence that it believed would be sufficient to support brining charges in this case,” the letter read.

Overall, the DOJ alleges the County Attorney’s Office “fails to adequately investigate cases of sexual assault… fails to collaborate with Missoula Police detectives … fails to engage in any independent investigative responsibility… [and] fails to explain adequately to the Missoula Police why cases are declined.”

The County Attorney’s Office serves as the state prosecutor in Missoula and employs 17 Deputy County Attorneys in two sections, criminal and civil, according to the DOJ. Van Valkenburg has been leading the office since 1998.

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