Criminal Justice

DOJ: Prosecutor's office downplayed gravity of sex crimes, told victim's mom 'boys will be boys'

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The U.S. Justice Department sees likely gender bias in a failure by the Missoula, Mont., County Attorney’s office to prosecute nonstranger rapes.

In a letter to Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, the Justice Department says its investigation found that his office declined to prosecute “nearly every case” involving nonstranger assaults on adult women who were intoxicated, or on adult women with a mental or physical diability. Mother Jones and the Missoulian have stories, while this press release summarizes the findings.

There are “strong indications” that the charging decisions in such cases are influenced by gender bias and gender stereotyping, the letter says.

“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 letter said.

In one instance, a prosecutor told the mother of a 5-year-old sexual assault victim that “boys will be boys.” The adolescent perpetrator was sentenced to only two years of community service. In another case, a deputy county attorney quoted religious passages to a woman who reported a sexual assault, leading her to believe that the prosecutor judged her negatively for making the report. In yet another case, one woman says a county attorney told her, “All you want is revenge,” as they discussed the office’s decision not to prosecute her alleged assailant.

According to the letter, the prosecutor’s office declined to prosecute some nonstranger sexual assaults even when it had a confession. In one case, a man admitted to police that he raped a woman while she was unconscious, but the County Attorney’s office didn’t bring charges, citing insufficient evidence. In another case, there was no prosecution of a man who told police he couldn’t determine how long it took him to stop having intercourse with a mentally ill woman who asked him to stop.

The Justice Department released the letter late Friday, spurring Van Valkenburg to accuse the department of trying to manipulate the news by the timing.

“These are things I have never even heard of,” Van Valkenburg told the Missoulian. “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 had recently sought a declaratory judgment that the Justice Department had no jurisdiction to investigate his office or to seek injunctive relief.

The Justice Department began its investigation of Van Valkenburg’s office in May 2012, while also investigating the Missoula Police Department and the University of Montana’s Office of Public Safety. The latter two agencies reached agreements with the Justice Department to improve their responses to sexual assaults.

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