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23 Mar 2016

Western Lit: Jon Krakauer's 'Missoula' Explores a Flawed Justice System That Fails Victims

Written by  Annie Dawid

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town is not intended for readers with delicate sensibilities.

Jon Krakauer’s newest book investigates, in great detail, several rapes perpetrated between 2008 and 2012 by members of the University of Montana. In Missoula, the “Griz” are hometown heroes—and those who cast aspersions on the celebrated players’ reputations had better be prepared to face the consequences.

The rapists and their victims receive equal treatment here, along with prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges and detectives. Krakauer allows all of them to speak for themselves; no one emerges untainted. The “justice” in Krakauer’s title remains elusive at best and is tarnished throughout, due to clumsy cops, politicized prosecutors and a widespread lack of empathy for the few women willing to confront their attackers—always a minority among rape victims.

Rape, says one prosecutor, “is the only crime in which the victim is presumed to be lying.” A defense attorney exemplifies that attitude in his address to the jury on behalf of his client, the team’s star quarterback. “Why would he even think of committing such a reckless act, given his high profile in the community, his sterling reputation, and everything he stood to lose?”

Krakauer fans may be somewhat frustrated by this latest work—not by the investigative reporter’s uniformly excellent research, but by the dearth of compelling, admirable characters, flawed but enthralling, who generally populate the writer’s best-selling nonfiction, such as Under the Banner of Heaven and Into Thin Air.

There are no heroes here, but one villain rises above—or sinks below—the rest of the muck: a female prosecutor who is reluctant to prosecute rape without a guarantee of winning, and who, upon leaving public office, immediately begins defending rapists. Kirsten Pabst, having established that the accused is an upstanding young man, “devoted the rest of her opening statement to vilifying his accuser,” Krakauer writes. Such, we learn, is standard defense-attorney procedure; the pursuit of justice has little, if any, role.

Readers will finish this book with plenty of information but little confidence that the courts punish the guilty. “In Missoula, Grizzly football exists in a realm apart,” Krakauer concludes, and the players and their lawyers “expect, and often receive, special dispensation.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town

By Jon Krakauer

Anchor

416 pages, $16.95 (paperback edition)

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