United States: County Attorney in Montana under Federal Investigation for Failing to Prosecute Sexual Assaults
Thursday, April 17, 2014 1:30 PM

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating a western Montana County Attorney’s Office for alleged bias in handling rape cases, amid mounting complaints that county prosecutors minimize or ignore reports of sexual assaults. The DOJ summarized the findings of its ten-month inquiry into the Missoula County Attorney's Office (MCAO) in a 20-page letter issued in February.
In the letter, the DOJ states that its investigation to date “has revealed substantial evidence suggesting that MCAO's response to allegations of sexual assault and rape discriminates against women and that this discrimination is fueled, at least in part, by gender bias.”  This evidence includes the DOJ’s finding that, from January 2008 through May 2012, county prosecutors pursued charges in only 17 percent of the sexual-assault cases that the police had referred to them for prosecution. In its letter, the DOJ found that the MCAO's failure to prosecute sexual assault, particularly non-stranger sexual assault, could not be attributed to a lack of evidence. The Missoula County Attorney, Fred Van Valkenburg, claims that the DOJ lacks authority to investigate and has filed suit asking a federal judge to halt the inquiry.
Two related federal investigations into Missoula’s Police Department and the University of Montana concluded in 2013 with agreements between local officials and the DOJ. These agreements included promises to improve the way the local authorities handled reports of sexual assaults and the hiring of independent overseers to monitor their efforts.
Compiled from: Healy, Jack, Accusation in Montana of Treating Rape Lightly Stirs Unlikely Public Fight, The New York Times (April 12, 2014)