This past June, Fred Van Valkenburg, the Missoula Montana County attorney made a startling comment about the sexual assault case lodged against University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson that shouldn't be ignored. Van Valkenburg was asked if he felt pressure to file a rape charge against Johnson, given the ongoing federal investigation and the results of an outside investigation that found 11 cases of sexual assault at UM between September 2010 and February 2012. Van Valkenburg gave the expected response: his entire staff had reviewed the case and felt there was enough evidence to proceed. “I honestly do not think we filed charges because of the DOJ investigation was pending,” Van Valkenburg said.
But Van Valkenburg added this: “I can’t say the atmosphere in Missoula didn’t operate in my mind somewhere” as he considered whether to file the charges.
Those words are chilling. While Mr. Van Valkenburg seems to believe that charges were appropriate, he is wise enough, and candid enough, to acknowledge that the public outcry against rape could have influenced his decision.
Innocence Project guru Mark A Godsey has said that "the risk of wrongful conviction is the highest when there’s public outcry. Most of the exonerations and wrongful convictions have occurred in rape cases." One need not look back to the hanging trees of the Old South for such injustice. This blog, and our predecessor blog, have chronicled a veritable cornucopia of it in recent years.
It is for this reason that we worry whether justice can truly be done in the U.S. Naval Academy case, given the public outcry over rape in the military. A news report aptly stated: "The case has drawn attention as the White House, Congress and the Pentagon have been focusing on the issue of sexual assault after a string of cases in the military this year. President Barack Obama highlighted the importance of the issue at the Naval Academy's graduation ceremony in May."
In fact, President Obama's unfortunate attempt to politicize the issue has already potentially harmed rape victims.
Justice needs to be blind to such external pressures. The facts of each case need to be dealt with on their own merits. No one should ever be charged with or convicted of a crime based on what has happened in other cases, or because "he's the type who would do it," or because false claims supposedly are rare, or because a conviction is the "preferred outcome," or because of a public outcry. To the extent such considerations enter into the decision to charge or convict, justice is not done. To the extent that such external pressures exist, even a conviction that is otherwise proper will be suspect.