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Austin Prosecutor Accused Of Perpetuating Lies About Sexual Assault Victim

District Attorney Margaret Moore continues to face accusations that her office mishandles the prosecution of sex crimes.

Police headquarters in Austin, Texas.Wikipedia

A woman who said she was strangled, kidnapped, and raped by multiple men over two days in January 2018 has filed a motion for a restraining order against the district attorney and first assistant prosecutor in Travis County, Texas, seeking to block them from alleging that she consented to being sexually assaulted. 

District Attorney Margaret Moore, who was elected lead prosecutor in Austin in 2016 and is up for re-election next year, has long been accused of mishandling sexual assault incidents. In June 2018, a group of women filed a proposed class action lawsuit against Moore and the city of Austin alleging that their cases were marred by law enforcement failures. They claimed Moore’s office disproportionately dismissed cases or refused to prosecute sexual assault cases when the victim was female. 

Emily Borchardt, the woman asking for the temporary restraining order, joined the lawsuit in August 2018 after Moore’s office declined to prosecute her case. Borchardt claims that despite the litigation, her issues with Moore’s office have continued. 

A month after Borchardt joined the lawsuit, the first assistant prosecutor in Moore’s office, Mindy Montford, returned a call from a family friend of Borchardt’s who wanted to know why the office would not be prosecuting her alleged rapists, according to the motion for a temporary restraining order. The friend recorded the call in which Montford said at least 11 times that Borchardt admitted to the Austin police that her alleged rapes were consensual, the motion states. Borchardt says she feared for her life and never said she consented to the assaults. After the call, Borchardt filed a separate defamation lawsuit accusing Moore and Montford of attempting to discredit her and dissuade her from participating in the class action. 

Borchardt alleges that they have continued to publicly discredit her, including in a DA candidate forum in October. The motion for a restraining order asks that Moore and Montford be “immediately enjoined from continuing to spread lies about her.”

The Travis County district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment. The district attorney’s office has filed a motion to dismiss the class action lawsuit, arguing in part that the claims made by the plaintiffs did not constitute civil rights violations. 

Kristen Lenau, who co-founded the Austin-based Survivor Justice Project in 2016 to look into the city’s rape kit backlog and to push the city to improve its response to sexual assault, said she was disturbed to learn that Borchardt felt like she needed a restraining order against Moore and Montford. 

“It’s pretty appalling,” she told The Appeal. “That’s just one person’s experience. We know that there are hundreds that are reported every year and those stories we never hear about. … We know our systems have a tendency to silence survivors of sexual assault and they participate in the stigmatization and minimization of the crime.” 

Women who have experienced sexual abuse in Austin say the district attorney’s office fails them by silencing their stories. They also allege that the mishandling of their cases causes them to face additional trauma, according to the proposed class action. Each year, over 1,000 women in the county report that they are the victims of violent sexual crime, according to the complaint, but fewer than 10 of such cases result in convictions on sexual assault charges each year

In July, Moore was appointed to a statewide task force aimed at developing best practices for sexual assault prosecutions. But a few days later, she resigned from the group, citing backlash from critics who claimed that she and her office have failed sexual assault survivors. 

Ana Rodriguez DeFrates, another co-founder of the Survivor Justice Project, told The Appeal that the issues are compounded by recent reports of racism within the Austin Police Department. Former Assistant Chief Justin Newsom, who abruptly retired in November, was accused in a complaint with the Office of Police Oversight of using a racist term to describe Black people, including former City Council member Ora Houston and former Police Chief Frank Dixon. The complaint alleged that he had frequently used the term over the last decade. 

“Especially in light of this new information that our leadership within APD regularly engages in racist language, what assurances do we have that a person of color who reports their sexual assault or whose sexual assault is reported will be treated with any semblance of dignity and respect?” DeFrates said. “We can’t pretend that our systems aren’t racially biased.”

Moore is facing opposition from a number of groups critical of her treatment of sexual assault survivors, including the Austin Firefighters Association, which has set up a website to oppose Moore. The group says that its members are often the first to respond to the scene of a sexual assault. “We always thought that after the victim left our care they would be treated fairly by the justice system,” the organization stated. “Sadly we have found out this is not usually the case.”

Two candidates, Erin Martinson and José Garza, have launched campaigns to challenge Moore at the ballot box next year. Garza is co-executive director of the Austin-based nonprofit Workers Defense Project and previously worked in the Obama administration and as a state and federal public defender. Martinson managed a team of attorneys at the Texas Legal Services Center until recently. Both are running on platforms that include the improved handling of sexual assault cases. 

Other recently elected district attorneys, like Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, have begun to show what a progressive approach to sexual assault can look like. Boudin has vowed to transform the management of sex crimes by testing every rape kit, establishing a sex crimes review team, and giving survivors a voice by pairing each with a trained victim advocate, among other reforms.  

DeFrates, who in her personal capacity works for Martinson’s campaign, said the fact that Moore faces a challenger in 2020 will help hold her accountable for her failures when it comes to sex crimes.

“I really do think this election is making us talk about rape and sexual assault,” she said. “This is really forcing a deeper analysis. How progressive is Austin really? How progressive is Travis County? Because I think it’s time to interrogate that for ourselves. I think we have a lot to strive for still.”