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Gallatin County task force to review 14-year backlog of unprosecuted sex crimes

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By Keila Szpaller DAILY MONTANAN

A joint task force charged with reviewing a backlog of unprosecuted violent sex crimes in Gallatin County will hold its first meeting April 12.

Newly elected County Attorney Audrey Cromwell announced last month she discovered boxes of cases in the office referred for prosecution by law enforcement but never reviewed by attorneys in her office. The county identified 113 cases from 2008 to 2022.

“I want to be clear that law enforcement did everything properly,” Cromwell said in a statement about the discovery and plan to move forward. “The failure has been at the County Attorney’s Office, and that stops now.”

Cromwell took office in January this year.

“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 in a statement.

At its first meeting, the task force will determine how to proceed, a timeline and ways to track data, according to Gallatin County.

At a press conference in March about the crimes, Cromwell said she knows the cases weren’t reviewed because they weren’t logged into the case management system. She said evaluating those files are at the top of her priority list.

“I think violent crime against persons in our community should be the highest priority of crime prosecuted by our office,” Cromwell said.

Generally speaking, she said, sex cases have a 10-year statute of limitations, and crimes against children under 18 can be prosecuted at any time. Cromwell said she imagines some cases won’t be viable anymore.

The cases the task force will review include 53 violent rape cases, 20 sexual assault cases, 14 domestic violence cases, eight incest cases, and seven sexual abuse against children cases, among others, the county said.

The county said 100 victims identify as female, and 52 cases include some form of sexual violence against children.

In addition to Cromwell, the task force she helped form includes the town attorney for West Yellowstone and Manhattan; a detective with the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office; a victim advocate with the Gallatin County Victim Services; and prosecutors from the cities of Bozeman and Belgrade.

This week, Stacy Wesen, head of Gallatin County Victim Services, said a couple of crime victims have reached out to her office since the county announced the unprosecuted cases and requested their cases — declined for prosecution earlier — be reviewed as well.

Wesen said that review will take place.

Wesen said she hopes the good contact information will be available to reach out to victims and families as soon as possible. However, she said finding people might be more difficult if a case has been sitting for a longer time.

In the past, she said when people asked for status updates, her office would request them from the County Attorney’s Office: “But we were still waiting for those cases to be reviewed and filed.”

Wesen said she believes the problem has been a caseload issue at the County Attorney’s Office.

“We care deeply about the victims and want to support them through this process, and we’re really hopeful that this will provide some answers for victims and also some peace of mind knowing that their cases are being reviewed,” Wesen said.

At the press conference, Sheriff Dan Springer said law enforcement officers submit fully investigated cases to the County Attorney’s Office, but they don’t have any authority over the office; in other words, it’s prosecutors, not investigators, who decide whether to move ahead with a case.

In addressing the caseload problem, Cromwell said her office is budgeted for 13 attorney positions, and it has 10 of those jobs filled. Since January, she said the number of filled positions has doubled.

The plan is to request two additional attorneys every year for the next four years to get to a staffing level that’s comparable to other offices in Montana and on par with a national recommendation for caseload, Cromwell said.

The office also will request funding for additional victim advocates, one every other year for a ratio of roughly one advocate for every three attorneys.

This week, county commissioners said they’re ready to hear those budget requests from the County Attorney’s Office.

Commissioner Jennifer Boyer said commissioners are aware of staffing issues across departments and want to provide cost of living increases to all employees because it’s expensive to live in the area. In Bozeman, the median single family home costs $875,000, according to the Bozeman Real Estate Group.

“That’s also an important piece of this is to ensure that our staffing is stable, and we don’t lose folks because it’s so challenging to finding housing here in Gallatin County,” Boyer said.

Boyer said the County Attorney’s Office has seen a lot of turnover, and she believes other measures may support and streamline its operations as well, such as moving the office so it can work more closely with victim services.

Under Cromwell, Boyer said the County Attorney’s Office has been able to recruit more attorneys, plan for interns, and is stabilizing.

“While it’s hard to have turnover and change, it offers an opportunity to kind of refresh and build a culture that maybe is more responsive to our both community needs but also our employees’ needs,” Boyer said.

Commissioner Scott MacFarlane said staffing is an ongoing conversation. He said the previous county attorney had asked for more lawyers, and the commissioners added funding, but they knew they would be entertaining more requests even at the end of last year’s budget.

MacFarlane also addressed the question about possible liability for the county over unprosecuted cases. He said victims have every right to sue, and he anticipates commissioners would be named in such a case.

However, he said the county is insured for liability, but the state also sets a limit. Even if a judge says a case is worth $10 million in damages, a county doesn’t have to pay more than $750,000 by law, he said.

He and Boyer said commissioners have a regular weekly meeting with the county attorney and will have the opportunity to receive updates and ask questions about the review at those meetings.

The Bozeman Chronicle reported former County Attorney Marty Lambert was unaware of the boxes that were found with cases all dated from his tenure. Lambert told the Chronicle his office “aggressively prosecuted sex crimes with the staff he had available,” according to the story.

At the press conference, Cromwell said her office will set up policies and procedures with help from the Department of Justice to ensure cases aren’t neglected in the future and get reviewed in a timely manner.

She said finding the boxes frustrated and saddened her for the victims.

“These are members of our community. And there are also offenders who have not been held accountable for a violent crime that they’ve committed,” Cromwell said.

In the press release from the county, Cromwell said her goal is for lawyers to review all new cases within two weeks.

“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 (request for prosecution) involving sex crimes sit in a box for 14 years,” Cromwell said.

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