I recently finished Jon Krakauer’s Missoula and the only word that came to my mind when I was finished (and for that matter through most of the book was: Wow.
Acquaintance rape is commonly thought of as a college problem or a college town problem. And while Missoula focuses on several cases in Missoula, Montana, some involving students at the University of Montana, the larger theme in Krakauer’s book is that the handling of sexual assault cases and rape cases is not limited to these towns.
It’s an everywhere problem.
I was utterly baffled through most of the book about decisions made by police and prosecutors with regard to several of these cases. And while some of Krakauer’s evidence is antecdotal, he uses dialogue from court and police records to bolster his argument.
The thing that probably set me off the most was the handling of one particular case and the behavior of one person, who is currently in charge of the entire prosecutor’s office in the county Krakauer focuses on. During the university adjudication process for one case, the assistant prosecutor testified on behalf of the defendant and said the victim had essentially made her story up, despite clear evidence to the contrary.
That same assistant prosecutor left the prosecutor’s office and vigorously defended (earning an acquittal) another student who was accused of sexually assaulting a female friend.
She then got elected to run the entire prosecuting attorney’s office for the county.
From my personal experience as a reporter at a college newspaper, finding out about rapes on college campuses is difficult. University procedures use a standard of preponderance of the evidence, not beyond a reasonable doubt. Basically, if there’s more than 50 percent chance they committed the crime, they’re guilty.
But universities use FERPA, a federal law that protects student records from being released in Freedom of Information Act requests, to deny releasing any disciplinary records, even redacted versions.
Krakauer got access because the U.S. Department of Justice got involved and did a massive report criticizing the handling of cases by police and prosecutors, including not charging suspects when there were confessions! It’s no wonder studies show many rapes go unreported. Why would a victim in Missoula subject themselves to scrutiny when the case likely will be laughed off by a prosecutor?
Unfortunately, what Krakauer relays in his book is not isolated to the mountains of Montana. Too often, this is what happens in communities across America.
I consider this book a must-read. The more educated we are as a society, the more likely we’ll be able to impact change that will be meaningful and possibly protect victims, both present and future, from enduring something so difficult.