The Missoulian editorial of Dec. 11 blasting my review and prosecution of sexual assault cases has taken entirely out of content my statements to a law enforcement consultant.
When I told Tom Tremblay, the independent evaluator of the Missoula Police Department’s efforts to comply with its agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, that the prosecutors in my office make charging decisions in sexual assault cases in their spare time, he fully understood the context of that statement and simply suggested that the police department and county attorney’s office develop a protocol to ensure a timely charging decision process. Police Chief Mark Muir and I have been working on that process since Tremblay issued his report and should complete it before Muir leaves office this week.
The prosecutors in this office are extremely busy. They have very high caseloads. They have to spend a substantial amount of their work time in court handling routine daily appearances, critical hearings on matters such as motions, trials, the entry of guilty pleas, sentencings and other matters. In addition, they have to regularly spend at least one day a week charging new cases where people have just been arrested. When they are not in court, they have to write briefs, meet with victims, detectives, defense attorneys, negotiate plea agreements and prepare for trial.
When they have any additional time (which is exactly what I meant by “spare time”), they review newly referred cases where an arrest has not been made to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to charge someone with a crime. Law enforcement officers understand this and virtually to a person, appreciate all the work the people in the county attorney’s office does. Sexual assault cases have always been and will always be among our highest priorities.
The Missoulian, without so much as a phone call to me or anyone else in our office, has taken my words and deliberately twisted them for its own purpose – disagreeing with my position that the DOJ does not have authority to investigate our office. In the process, the newspaper is seriously undermining public confidence in the important work we are doing.
Fred Van Valkenburg is Missoula’s County Attorney.