OPINION: Our justice system failed Lauren McCluskey

Oct 24, 2018, 2:23 PM | Updated: Dec 30, 2022, 11:29 am
Lauren McCluskey and Melvin Rowland...
Lauren McCluskey, left, and her killer Melvin Rowland, right. (Photos courtesy of Jill McCluskey / Salt Lake County)
(Photos courtesy of Jill McCluskey / Salt Lake County)

The road to the murder of University of Utah student-athlete Lauren McCluskey began when she was just six-years-old.

That was when the state of Utah gave the man who would kill her, Melvin Rowland, a reduced sentence for the forcible rape of a 17-year-old girl.

It was just the first mistake of many; the beginning of a series of absolute failures that would end with a violent man listed on the sex offender registry getting ahold of a gun and using it to end a 21-year-old girl’s life.

It’s a horrible story; one that makes me sick to my stomach. My heart breaks when I think about what Lauren’s family is going through right now, and my whole body shakes when I think about the possibility that something like this could happen to my own daughter.

But there’s something more about this story that pains me, even more than all of that.

It could have been prevented.

Melvin Rowland never should have been released

Melvin Rowland

Melvin Rowland’s photograph from the sex offender registry. (Utah Sex Offender Registry)

Utah’s criminal justice system failed Lauren McCluskey.

Time and time again, Melvin Rowland made it completely and perfectly clear what he was capable of doing. But every warning sign he gave us was ignored.

It started in 2003 when Rowland was convicted of two back-to-back sexual misconduct charges. First, he forcibly raped a 17-year-old girl as she begged him to leave her alone. Then, just two days later, he went online and propositioned an undercover investigator that he thought was a 13-year-old girl for sex.

Melvin Rowland was a sexual predator. Right then, way back in 2003, that was already clear. He’d been caught for two sex crimes in three days, and he’d gotten away with far more than that. By his own admission, he’d already raped two other women.

He never faced charges for those other sex crimes. Instead, he was given a plea deal. His first-degree sexual abuse charge was knocked down to a third-degree charge, and he was promised no more than fifteen years in prison.

That was just the start of what would become a revolving door of prison releases and parole violations. Time after time, our justice system gave Rowland every chance imaginable, and every time he proved exactly how dangerous he was.

A revolving door of parole violations

In 2010, he failed a sex-offender treatment program. He was given a chance at rehabilitation, but instead, he just took advantage of the people who were trying to help him. He lied to the staff about his crimes, lied to an employee to get access to the internet, and openly talked about his desires to prey on vulnerable, underage girls.

And yet, just two years later, in 2012, he was given parole.

We have audio from that 2012 parole hearing, and Rowland’s words are chilling:

He describes himself a “womanizer”, admits to having raped two other women, and openly says:

Every woman I met or that I came across, I used my manipulation tactics to get what I wanted.

And still, he was given parole.

Rowland didn’t stay out of prison. Within less than two months of getting out, he’d already violated the terms of his parole by using his cell phone to watch pornography and setting up a Facebook account – something he’d specifically been forbidden from doing because of the nature of his crimes.

Within a year, they let him go again; and less than three years after that, in 2016, Rowland got himself sent back to prison once more. Just like before, he was caught using social media to meet women for sex. Nothing about him had changed.

The lawyer who represented him in 2016 openly told the courts that this was a dangerous man, telling them:

If an agent were to come conduct a field visit, he might become violent.

But a little over two years later, on August 17, 2018, Rowland was once more sent back out into free society.

There were so many warning signs. Time and time again, he proved that he wasn’t a redeemed man, that as soon as he was released he would fall right back into the same cycle of manipulation of sexual abuse.

Melvin Rowland still hadn’t served his full maximum sentence of 15 years.

But they let him go.

Lauren McCluskey did everything right

Lauren McCluskey

Lauren McCluskey told the University of Utah police that she was being harassed by Rowland. (Photo courtesy of Jill McCluskey)

Lauren McCluskey didn’t ignore those warning signs. She did everything she possibly could have done to keep herself safe.

Rowland was a practiced manipulator. That was the only reason she ever got mixed up with him: because he lied to her about every detail of his life. He lied about his past, his age, and even his name.

It was just like he’d told the parole board. Every woman he ever came across, he used his manipulation tactics to get what he wanted.

But McCluskey was unusually bright. Within a month of meeting him, she figured out who the man she’d been seeing really was, thanks to the help of a friend, and nearly as soon as she knew, she did everything possible to make sure he didn’t hurt anybody again.

She called the university police. She told them exactly who he was and what he’d been doing. She told them about how he’d been aggressively harassing her and how she was worried for her own safety. She begged them for help.

After missing so many opportunities to keep her safe, our justice system was being given one last chance to save her.

All the police had to do was Google his name and they would have seen him on the sex offender registry. They would have seen that he was on parole. They could have called his parole officer and gotten him put somewhere he couldn’t hurt anybody.

But it didn’t happen. The parole board says that the police never notified them of McCluskey’s fears for her safety. And now, Lauren McCluskey is being sent home to her mother in a casket.

Lauren McCluskey didn’t do anything wrong. She did everything anyone could have asked her to do.

But our criminal justice system failed her. And if we don’t learn from this lesson, it will go on failing more women just like her.

More to the story

My co-host Dave Noriega and I talked about this on KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic, and he shared some incredible insights into prison recidivism in the United States. If you missed the show, you can still hear it all on our podcast.

Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL Newsradio. Users can find the show on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

Listen on Apple PodcastsListen on Google Play Music

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OPINION: Our justice system failed Lauren McCluskey