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Jon Krakauer’s ‘Missoula’ is the right way to tell the disturbing story of campus rape

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town

By Jon Krakauer

Doubleday

367 pages, $28.95

By Lee Coppola

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

On the heels of the black eye Rolling Stone Magazine gave journalism while, at the same time, undermining campus rape threats, comes “Missoula,” an examination of sexual abuse in the town that’s home to the University of Montana.

Jon Krakauer helps heal the wounds left by Rolling Stone’s shabby, undocumented and unverified story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. And he does it the old-fashioned way, by examining court and university records and talking to anybody involved willing to meet with him.

His conclusion: it’s difficult, if not almost impossible, to prosecute a rape case in a town where the academic occupant plays such a major role in the lifestyle of the residents. In Missoula’s case, members of the revered U of M football team seem most likely to avoid the penalties of forcible sex.

Krakauer goes into detail about acquaintance rapes involving the university’s students. Much of what he writes was previously reported by local media, but Krakauer goes deeper into the cases and makes judgments about reaction by the community, the university and law enforcement.

Take, for example, his response to a letter written to the local media by the 2012 football team asking for community support after teammates had been accused of rape and the football coach and athletic director were fired for their failure to respond appropriately to reports some of their players had sexually abused women. “Conspicuously absent,” Krakauer opines, “was any expression of concern for the women who had been raped. One is left with the sense that the football players saw themselves as the primary victims of the rape scandal.”

The author follows that theme throughout, pointing out inaccurate and misinterpretation of facts by investigating officers and others involved in the cases. And he chastises those who give short shrift to the women’s stories and seem more willing to find reasons to fault the victims.

He pays particular attention to a case where the rapist confessed. He was a star football player and, as in other cases Krakauer detailed, the victim had imbibed a significant amount of alcohol and was either sleeping or passed out when accosted. To boot, the two were childhood friends.

That association prompted the football player to apologize to the victim, an apology the victim surreptitiously recorded. Armed with that recording, a detective eventually obtained a confession admissible in court. The player’s arrest triggered an uproar in the town. Fans of the football team were outraged and talk among the player’s supporters was the victim was lying. She and her sister and friends, out for a bachelorette party, were refused service at a popular bar and then harassed and cursed by the brother and friends of the accused.

The case exemplifies what the author sees as hurdles to prosecution. The victims are often not believed; they usually were intoxicated; there had been some flirting, even intimacy, before the assault occurred; the objections were not clear; and making accusations often triggers wretched consequences in court, in person or via social media.

It’s these hurdles that Missoula’s prosecutors stressed in failing to proceed with arrests. So negligent were they the Justice Department stepped in and conducted a yearlong investigation that resulted in prosecutors agreeing to more stringently adhere to scientific evidence in pursuing justice for victims. Krakauer determined the flaws in the system were lack of training regarding rape cases and a culture that did not encourage prosecutors to “aggressively pursue challenging cases.”

And he found something else, something perhaps endemic in other college localities where sexual crimes occur:

“In Missoula, Grizzly football exists in a realm apart. University of Montana fans, coaches, players, and their lawyers expect, and often receive, special dispensation.” That premise was illustrated clearly in another rape case where the assigned prosecutor decided insufficient evidence existed to bring charges.

Then, to the bewilderment of the victim and her family, the prosecutor, a woman, testified on behalf of the accused rapist at a hearing before the university’s disciplinary court.

The university, with evidentiary standards less stringent than legal ones, found the accused in violation of university rules and, much to its credit, expelled him.

The female prosecutor? Her boss supported her right to testify for the man she was assigned to prosecute, and she lashed out at the local newspaper for publishing stories about “a couple of disgruntled young adults … who spin a good story to a reporter too lazy to check the facts.”

She eventually resigned and found work as a criminal attorney … defending accused student rapists.

Lee Coppola is a former print and TV journalist, a former federal prosecutor and the former dean of St. Bonaventure’s Jandoli School of Journalism.