Monday, September 21, 2015

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, by Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer uses Missoula and the University of Montana as a case study of the problem of non-stranger rape in college towns across the United States; he reminds readers, both at the beginning of the book and at the end, that Missoula is typical of such towns--and that is a truly frightening fact.

Within the larger Missoula case study, Krakauer presents in detail the stories of several young women sexually assaulted in that city--what happened on the night they were assaulted, how they decided what action to take in the wake of the assault, how the traumatic experience affected them, how they were treated by the university, the police, the district attorney's office, and ultimately the larger public. Because a number of the assailants were members of the beloved "Grizz" football team, the women were insulted and threatened on fan websites and in person (by people to whom their identities were known).

The handling of rape cases by the Missoula police department and DA's office was problematic enough to prompt a U.S. Justice Department investigation. The police department rather quickly agreed to work with the Justice Department to improve their training and practice. The prosecutor's office resisted, even threatening to sue the Justice Department. If there is an arch-villain in the legal establishment it is Kirsten Pabst, who tried to block publication of the book. Pabst was the head of the criminal prosecutions division of the Missoula County Prosecutor's Office; she often chose not to file charges against accused rapists, claiming insufficient evidence (she also bragged about her conviction rate--but a high conviction rate based on very selective prosecution is nothing to brag about); she even went so far as to testify on behalf of an accused rapist at the university's disciplinary hearing! Pabst then left the MCPO to go into private practice, immediately becoming the attorney for the Grizz's star quarterback, Jordan Johnson, who was accused of sexual assault by a female friend. During the trial, Pabst used all of the attack-the-victim strategies used in rape cases, appealing to the myths common among law enforcement and the public. Following Johnson's acquittal, Pabst ran for and won the district attorney's seat (despite illegal activities on the part of her campaign). It's sad to think she's in that position today.

Krakauer interweaves the stories of these cases with research summaries dispelling many of the myths about rape. Of course, there are people who are unmoved by research or by women's stories and continue to deny that rape on college campuses is a problem. But it is a problem, one fueled by alcohol, a sense of male entitlement, and inadequate education for police, attorneys, and young men and women (I am not blaming the victim, but there are clearly situations young women should not put themselves in--the case studies make that quite evident).

I was going to say you should read this book if you have children or grandchildren approaching college age or work with young people but I think I'll just say: If you're human, READ THIS BOOK.

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