Joint Task Force Created to Address Criminal Justice Crisis
Gallatin County Attorney Discovers Boxes of Unprosecuted Violent Sexual Crime Files in a Closet
Saturday Apr. 1st, 2023
The Gallatin County Attorney’s Office is responsible for reviewing investigations submitted by law enforcement agencies, which are called “Request for Prosecutions” or RFPs. When an RFP is submitted to the County Attorney’s Office by law enforcement, a prosecutor is supposed to promptly review the RFP, determine whether further investigation is required, and then make a decision about whether to prosecute the case or decline to prosecute the case based on the law and the investigation’s evidence. That is how the prosecution process is supposed to work.
“When I took office in January of this year, one of the first things I did was take stock of the physical office space. In an empty office stuffed under a desk and in a closet, I found boxes filled with unreviewed and unprosecuted RFPs from law enforcement for sexually violent crimes committed between 2008 and 2022. Once I realized what they were, it made me sick to my stomach,” Cromwell said.
The unreviewed RFPs totaled 113 cases: including 53 violent rape cases, 20 sexual assault cases, 14 domestic violence cases, 8 incest cases, and 7 sexual abuse against children cases, among others. One hundred of the victims identify as female. Fifty-two of the cases include some form of sexual violence against children.
“Clearly these cases were deprioritized by the former administration. No action had been taken on any of these cases, with the longest case sitting for the past 14 years,” Cromwell said.
“When I look at a case file, I don’t see pieces of paper; I see a victim whose life is forever altered because of the violence they suffered. I also see an offender who has not been held accountable for his or her actions. Justice has not been served and there has been no closure for victims. This is unacceptable,” Cromwell said.
Of the 113 cases, 42% of stem from investigations by the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, 37% from the Bozeman Police Department, and 22% from the Belgrade Police Department.
“I want to be clear that law enforcement did everything properly. The failure has been at the County Attorney’s Office, and that stops now. Our community is in good hands with our law enforcement agencies and it should likewise be in the good hands of our county-level prosecutors,” Cromwell said. “I campaigned on a promise to address crimes involving sexual violence and I will.”
Cromwell has worked to create a multi-agency Joint Task Force consisting of experienced attorneys, law enforcement officers, and criminal justice professionals to review each case and pursue those that are still viable for prosecution. The Joint Task Force includes:
• Audrey Cromwell, Gallatin County Attorney
• Jane Mersen, attorney at Kasting, Kaufman, and Mersen, and town attorney for West Yellowstone and Manhattan
• Mike Emens, detective with the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office
• April Waltee, victim advocate with Gallatin County Victim Services
• Prosecutors from the Cities of Bozeman and Belgrade
In addition, by working with the Bozeman and Belgrade City Attorneys, Greg Sullivan and Kyla Murray, their city prosecutors have volunteered to review RFPs from their respective municipal law enforcement agencies and work with the County Attorney’s Office to prosecute them.
“I am proud of my community – that this Joint Task Force with personnel from Gallatin County, the City of Bozeman, and City of Belgrade are all willing to come together in service to our community to review and prosecute these cases and ensure that this never happens again,” Cromwell said.
Many County Attorney’s Offices have written policies or guidelines when reviewing sexually violent cases for prosecution. The Gallatin County Attorney’s Office has never had such a policy. This is something Cromwell would like to remedy. She has disclosed this issue to other prosecutorial agencies in an effort to create best practices and policies in charging, prosecuting, and taking sex cases to trial.
One policy Cromwell will immediately ensure is the prompt review of law enforcement requests for prosecution of sexually violent crime.
“I promise you this – as long as I am County Attorney, I will prioritize prosecution of sexual violence and ensure victims are not forgotten in boxes under a desk or in a closet. My deputies will review all new rape and sexual abuse cases as fast as possible upon receipt by law enforcement from here on forward,” Cromwell said.
Ultimately, Cromwell would like her deputies to review all new cases within two weeks of submission by law enforcement.
“We are currently severely understaffed, so right now we cannot review every submission within two weeks. However, as long as the County Commission funds additional attorney positions, we should be able to reach this goal by the end of my second year in office, if not sooner. I can assure you, though, never again will an RFP involving sex crimes sit in a box for 14 years,” Cromwell said.
“I am heartbroken for the victims of these violent crimes whose trauma was not acknowledged. To the victims in our community, I know you have been further traumatized by the failure of the criminal justice system in our county,” Cromwell said. “You have my word that this will never happen again as long as I am county attorney.”
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence, there are numerous local resources to support you here in our community:
Help Center Sexual Assault Counseling Center 24-hour hotline
Gallatin County Victim Services
Haven’s 24-hour support line
Montana State University VOICE Center