Hillary McLaughlin sobbed during her two-and-a-half-hour drive home after Beau Donaldson’s revocation hearing last month. It’s been almost 10 years since the former Griz football player locked her in a bedroom and tried to rape her before her friends broke down the door, she says. Donaldson was convicted in 2013 of raping a different woman, a case chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Missoula, and was paroled in June 2016 after serving time at Montana State Prison and completing boot camp and pre-release programs.
Since then, Donaldson has admitted to violating the terms of his release 16 times. He’s been caught frequenting Bozeman bars, using social media, traveling out of state and taking male enhancement drugs without a prescription. The violations earned Donaldson a total of 10 days back in prison.
McLaughlin learned about these violations through a victim notification system. Each time, she’s reminded of the “most terrifying night of my life,” about which she still loses sleep and suffers anxiety attacks. It seemed obvious to her that Donaldson needed to go back to prison.
But when Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst sought to send him back by revoking the 20-year suspended portion of his 30-year sentence, Missoula County District Court Judge Karen Townsend said her hands were tied. A new state law, she said, left her with “no option” but to return Donaldson to the supervision of his probation and parole officers.
The law said to have tied Townsend’s hands, Senate Bill 63, passed the Montana Legislature last year as part of a package of criminal justice reform bills intended to reduce prison overcrowding by retooling a system that had preferenced incarceration over rehabilitation.
“When this new legislation was under consideration, citizens and county prosecutors were assured that the new laws would not impede our local ability to protect our communities from sexual and violent offenders,” Pabst says. “The opposite seems to be happening — convicted sexual offenders are using the new laws to get away with blatantly violating the terms of their judgments.”
But to those who pushed for reform, the situation says as much about Pabst’s strategy as it does about the new law.
“If you take the fact that it was a Griz football player out of this, if this was an average guy on the street, is the county attorney going across county lines to grab an offender to bring him back for a revocation hearing?” asks state Rep. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, who describes himself as an ardent supporter of the new legislation.
The legislation does make it harder for county attorneys to put parolees and probationers back into prison. Rather than allowing judges to revoke suspended sentences for any violation, however minor, the new law establishes a grid of escalating penalties for so-called compliance violations, in which defendants violate the terms of release, but don’t commit new crimes. But Lynch says legislators intended to leave final discretion to judges. (Bill sponsor Cynthia Wolken declined to comment, citing her new position as deputy director at the Department of Corrections.)
Donaldson is currently on parole, meaning that any change to his sentence would be routed through the state parole board. But Pabst sought to revoke the probationary portion of his sentence, which hasn’t started yet. Under the relevant new statute, Pabst had to show that Donaldon’s probation and parole officer had exhausted the options spelled out in the intervention grid, or that Donaldson’s conduct indicates he will not respond to additional intermediary steps.
Donaldson’s attorney had Department of Corrections officials on his side. The deputy chief of the Bozeman probation and parole office, Katie Donath, submitted testimony stating that the department was willing to keep working with Donaldson, and that the latest sanctions seemed to be working.
Lynch says the fact that the DOC didn’t pursue a parole hearing suggests that Pabst may have overstepped. Pabst says she intervened because she was concerned that DOC officials were “showing extreme leniency” to Donaldson.
Pabst, who is up for re-election this year, says Townsend’s ruling shows that lawmakers will need to work with county prosecutors in 2019 to close “loopholes” in the new law, specifically how it applies to sexual and violent offenders, who she says are more likely to reoffend. And Lynch, despite his questioning of Pabst’s approach to Donaldson’s case, says he “wholeheartedly” agrees that loopholes in the new laws should be addressed.
McLaughlin says Donaldson’s hearing shows that the system isn’t working.
“It’s not working for Beau,” she says. “He’s not learning. And he’s not trying to learn.”