Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town: Reviewed

A difficult read, an important book. I saw the title and thought, Why would I want to read that? and then I saw Jon Krakauer was the author and I put it on hold at the library. The front flap of the book already upset me when I discovered the term “acquaintance rape.” Shortly after a woman described denying a man’s advances but staying over at his house after he reminded her it wouldn’t be safe to walk home alone at night. She said, later, “Before you learn the realities of sexual assault, you’re taught that it’s dangerous to walk alone at night, because strangers are out to get you.”

85% of rapes are “non-stranger rapes” or “acquaintance rapes.” There is a stunning misplacement of empathy when it comes to acquaintance rapes. In a case presented in the book, a man confessed to raping a woman, a friend since childhood, while she was sleeping, and his character witnesses consistently referred to the rape as something that happened, never as something he did, and unfortunate as this event was they didn’t see the benefit of both assailant and victim and their respective families having their lives disrupted any further than they’d already been. This same thinking is brought into the legal system. The minimum sentence for a rape conviction is two years served in prison, but the judge has leeway and in cases where rapes don’t include bodily injury, a convicted rapist can conceivably be freed serving no time at all. This is as sick as it sounds. That means judges can let people off if they rape gently.

This is following the rare convictions, but prosecutors essentially go looking for reasons to throw out cases for lack of evidence. One of the villains of the book, to my interpretation, is Kirsten Pabst, who boasted a 99% conviction rate of rapists from her time as a prosecutor, primarily because she was so adept at discovering reasons, ahead of time, cases probably wouldn’t win and so decided not to prosecute them, convincing the brave women who filed claims that they shouldn’t bother moving forward. Her poor handling of rape cases led, in part, to federal investigation in Missoula.

Missoula was used in this book because of some highly publicized cases involving the football team, but as the author frequently points out there is nothing atypical about the statistics of rape and the deficiencies of the legal system in Missoula. Getting assailants put away and victims justice is a problem throughout America.

80% of sexual assault incidents go unreported. Of those that are many are thrown out by prosecutors because the cases are considered unwinnable. This after these brave women have made it past police and investigators whose first line of questioning, commonly, includes asking women reporting rapes if they have boyfriends. The reason, to “find out” if their immediate assumption is accurate: that the woman cheated on a boyfriend and now wants to cover it up by claiming rape.

Part of this is a misunderstanding of the reality of rape and of how our justice system works, which affects both public opinion and investigations. Less than ten percent of reported rapes are falsified, first of all. Ample avenues are still available through the proceedings to uncover instances of false claims. A police officer taking a victim’s statement is not when to begin. The “innocent until proven guilty” concept is meant to apply to a later stage of the legal process. As is pointed out in the book, if innocent until proven guilty were applied in the beginning stages, nothing would ever get investigated.

Rape myths are used at every stage to discourage these cases from ever seeing a courtroom. Beginning with investigators’ assumptions that rape accusations are false, as evident in the commonly asked question of “do you have a boyfriend,” to defense counsel using victims’ responses against them when cases get to a jury trial. There is no normal way to react to the trauma of being raped. Victims fear for their lives during rapes, including rapes by non-strangers, so they may be too afraid to fight off an attacker or even to cry out for help. Despite this, demonstrated through scientific study, defending counsel of alleged rapists purposely play on these rape myths to establish reasonable doubt, using a woman’s moans as evidence against non-consent, or as in one of the cases documented in the book, texting a friend: “I think I was just raped.” And then giving the assailant a ride home. Defense argued non-consent wasn’t made clear pointing out that even she only “thought” she was raped. If we’re ignorant of what rape trauma is like, and the pool juries are drawn from are, that “think” is enough to establish reasonable doubt, but anyone who’s been raped or has studied the subject is aware that acquaintance rape is almost always accompanied by feelings of doubt and self-blame. Commonly victims wonder if they were responsible even when their own account makes it clear that they were not giving consent, saying no and even fighting off their attackers.

My main take from the book is that we have a system reflective of our tendency to empathize with alleged assailants over their accusers. Nowhere is that more clear than with Allison Huguet, a woman smart and articulate and courageous, who woke up to being raped and urged her, after the fact, contrite assailant to seek help with his alcoholism and sexual issues or she would report the incident. He didn’t, and she did. And at his sentencing hearing, listening to his family talk about what a wonderful person he is, she empathized with him, with the man who raped her. This is the influence of a historically misogynistic culture. Her life was forever changed, she was irreparably damaged, yet a part of her hated to see this young man’s life affected. She decided she owed it to society to get justice, but she had to fight at every stage, against his defense, against prosecutors, against her own compassion for the friend she remembered, all while receiving vicious attacks from former mutual friends furious over “what she was doing to him,” despite his confession. She endured all this and remained stalwart because there are giant problems with how rape is handled across America, and she was courageous enough to take a stand against our flawed system. She fought a system that every step of the way tried to make her feel guilty for wanting justice after being raped.

If we don’t live in a society that subjugates women, we live in one influenced by one that subjugated women. (That’s undeniable, there are people still alive when women couldn’t vote.) That influence remains and will for a long time. So that needs to be applied when we look at our laws and our system or we’ll fall back on that influence and feel like we’re arguing for what feels right without realizing we’re arguing for a system operating under that old influence.

The statistic that less than 10% of reported rapes are false claims can be flipped around to sound even more appalling: Over 90% of reported rapes are rapes. Yet cases are screened out by investigators, thrown out by prosecutors, or turned into he said, she said trials where the alleged victim is often attacked, an experience sometimes as traumatic as the rape. We’re left with this statistic: “just .2 to 2.8% of rapes culminate in a conviction that includes any time in jail for the assailant.” (Missoula, pg. 110) Vast improvements need to be made. People reading this important book will be a start.


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