Missoula, Montana has drawn national attention in the past three years for mishandling of sexual assault cases by the University of Montana, local police, and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office. These entities were largely criticized for re-traumatizing reporting victims of sexual assault or failing to properly investigate allegations. Sexual assault cases present significant challenges for prosecutors and defense attorneys, as there are often no witnesses other than the victim and the defendant. It is also difficult to balance the necessary and important constitutional protections and the presumption of innocence to which all criminal defendants are entitled with the need to encourage victims to report such incidents. There is a social stigma attached to both sides that can damage reputations and cause significant stress, among other consequences.
The U.S. Department of Justice initiated an investigation into the town’s handling of these types of cases and issued numerous recommendations for improvement. With a new County Attorney and several changes to the County Attorney’s Office, Missoula County has announced that it is now compliant with an agreement entered into with the Justice Department as to the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases. These changes include designation of several Special Victims Unit attorneys, an in-house victim coordinator, and increased training for the attorneys on staff.