Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sorry if I can't muster any sympathy for Missoula prosecutor who brought charges against Jordan Johnson

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg is not happy that the the U.S. Department of Justice has singled him out  for perpetuating gender bias against women when prosecuting cases of sexual assault.

Van Valkenburg fumes that he's innocent, damn it!

Now read this carefully: he claims that people should "keep in mind that there are always two sides to every story." He also said his office has an "ethical obligation" not to file cases that lack sufficient evidence.

Excuse me if I can't muster any sympathy for you, Fred.

This is the same man who charged University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson with sexual assault -- that trial ended in an acquittal last year, and one alternate juror made the following chilling comment: "The lack of evidence was troubling . . . . there was no evidence that Jordan Johnson knew that he had sex without consent." Kirsten Pabst, former chief deputy county prosecutor before becoming one of Mr. Johnson's attorneys, said that the County Attorney’s Office charged Mr. Johnson with a sex crime just "to send a message."

Is it possible Fred Van Valkenburg made Jordan Johnson a sacrificial lamb to demonstrate that he's not soft on sexual assault?

You remember the Johnson case, I'm sure. Mr. Johnson and his unnamed accuser had been flirtatious, and at a university ball, the accuser purportedly told Mr. Johnson, “Jordy, I would do you anytime.” They went back to her apartment, and after their encounter, the accuser cried rape, Mr. Johnson denied it, and the accuser sent a text to a friend: "The reason I feel this whole situation is my fault is because I feel like I gave Jordan mixed signals which caused him to act the way he did." In another text message, the accuser told someone, "I don't think he [Johnson] did anything wrong." But she still expressed happiness that he was going to be charged with rape -- according to a defense motion filed in the case, the text message said: "It will hit him like a ton of bricks which I'm okay with [emoticon smiley face] so wanna get lunch Thursday?"

This is sufficient evidence to destroy a young man's life? What was that about an "ethical obligation," Mr. Valkenburg? About "two sides" to every story?

What you need to know is this: good old Fred Van Valkenburg assigned five prosecutors -- count 'em: five -- including an assistant attorney general and an attorney in private practice, to pursue this case against Jordan Johnson. He even brought in feminist sexual assault guru Dr. David Lisak to testify for the prosecution. (Dr. Lisak was a lot of help: he testified that trauma could explain the changing stories of an alleged rape victim, but that lying could explain the same behavior.)

Do you think that Fred Van Valkenburg assigns five prosecutors and flies Dr. Lisak in to testify every time a black woman claims a kid in the inner city raped her?

So what was all that about, Freddy? This "win at all cost" mentality in a case where there was so little evidence and two sides to the story?

Well, you do that math: the New York Times said the charges against Jordan Johnson were brought "against the backdrop of a federal investigation into how . . . the city and county of Missoula, handled sexual assault allegations . . . ." And then Freddy Van Valkenburg made a startling statement. While he claims he doesn't think the charges were filed because of the federal investigation, he candidly admitted: “I can’t say the atmosphere in Missoula didn’t operate in my mind somewhere” as he considered whether to file the charges.


We have no idea if this man is really soft on sexual assault. But it is troubling that someone could charge a high profile kid in a case that raised so many questions.

And notice that the Department of Justice isn't buying that the prosecutor is tough on sexual assault merely because he went after the big man on campus in this one case.

Here's the bottom line: the worst thing that can happen to presumptively innocent men accused of sex crimes is when officials give in to public outcries over rape. Innocence Project guru Mark A Godsey has said that "the risk of wrongful conviction is the highest when there’s public outcry. Most of the exonerations and wrongful convictions have occurred in rape cases."

It would be nice if we lived in a world where rape crimes are prosecuted fairly, but the sad fact is that rape hysteria is sometimes fomented over a legitimate perception that rape is tolerated. Ironically, one way to minimize rape hysteria is to insist that prosecutors like Fred Van Valkenburg diligently and fairly prosecute rape cases. If the public perceives that rape is taken seriously and that the cases are fairly prosecuted, the chances of a public outcry about rape that tempts prosecutors to charge innocent men is lessened. 

Prosecutors who turn a blind eye to rape are no friends of the wrongly accused. They are part of the problem.