Modern justice 

Why the Griz arrests, and how they were handled, felt so wrong

The Saturday before last, three Griz football players and two more University of Montana students were arrested on felony burglary charges at a home on Pattee Canyon Drive. They climbed a ladder to get inside the house, which was under construction and appeared to be unoccupied. In fact, it contained a frightened family who called 911 when they woke at 3 a.m. to find enormous men entering their home.

The students and student-athletes were scheduled to appear in Missoula Justice Court the following Monday, but by noon the county attorney had intervened. Kirsten Pabst delayed charges until the next day, pending a full investigation, then delayed again until Wednesday afternoon, when the students were charged with misdemeanor trespassing.

That was a just decision. It seems excessive to put felonies on big, dumb college students for horsing around in what they thought was a construction site. There is burglary and there is burglary, and the kind where the house isn't finished and nobody takes anything but some beer is not the kind we think of when we hear the word. Yet there is something unsavory about the speed with which the county attorney intervened.

I am tempted to ask whether five 19-year-old American Indians would have gotten the same treatment. But that is not a fair question. A fair question is whether there was any good way for Pabst to do justice in this situation.

To the impartial observer, it was an almost comically perfect snafu. Felony burglary is obviously too much to describe what those kids did. Somebody had to lessen the charge. But the person whose job it was took office amid a massive controversy over whether she had done just that kind of thing, unjustly, for football players in the past.

Also there was a family in that house, and they were scared—at least they sounded that way when the homeowner spoke to the Kaimin, on condition of anonymity. "One of the guys was standing in the doorway and he was as big as the door, so I thought it wasn't in my best interests to confront him," he told the student newspaper.

Shortly thereafter, the homeowner stopped speaking to the press entirely. He is too smart to attach his family's name to any story involving crime and Griz athletics.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

I don't blame him, even if his silence created a 48-hour period when local media could only report that three football players had been arrested for burglary and, based on the county attorney's delay, probably wouldn't be charged with it. Those first stories included more information about player stats than information about the crime.

It was a situation that made no one look good: not the professional media, which got scooped by journalism students; not the county attorney, who had to go to the mat for the university athletic department before noon on a Monday; not the football program, which tallied another felony arrest if not felony charges; and not the little mountain town that made a father scared to give his name to reporters because the crime against his family was committed by Griz players.

Yet many people in this story did the right thing. Pabst was right to reduce the burglary charges to trespassing. The homeowner was right to remove himself when he realized he had suffered idiot hijinks rather than a four-man B&E.

So why don't we feel good about it? I submit that the pervasive feeling that there was no good way to do justice in this case is how we know we have done justice poorly in the past.

Remember when several prominent members of our community leveraged their careers and reputations to prove that quarterback Jordan Johnson did not rape a woman? Or when a nationally recognized author wrote a whole book about how other UM students, including some football players, probably did? Do you remember when the U.S. Department of Justice investigated the university, our police and the county attorney's office and when we resolved to put that sordid chapter of Missoula history behind us?

That was about six months ago. Evidently we have yet some healing to get done.

I say "we" because we are all responsible for this state of affairs. The most wrong thing anybody did last week was steal a case of beer from a house under construction, but it felt like an example of how crooked this town is. We're plenty crooked, I suspect, but mostly we are ashamed.

We let things reach a point where we don't trust anyone—not the football team, the university, the prosecutors, the media, nobody. We've come to a place where not even justice feels good. And we all have to live here.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and certain types of non-Hawkeye football at combatblog.net.

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