By BILL DRAPER
(MARYVILLE, Mo., AP) — Conflicting stories, the fog of underage intoxication and the disappearance of cellphone video of an alleged Missouri sexual assault two years ago led a special prosecutor to reach the same conclusion as the initial prosecutor in the case: There simply wasn’t enough evidence to gain a felony conviction.
Appointed in October to re-examine high school student Daisy Coleman’s claim that an older schoolmate raped her in January 2012 when she was 14, Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker charged Matthew Barnett with one misdemeanor count of child endangerment Thursday. The charge stemmed from Barnett, a 17-year-old senior at northwest Missouri’s Maryville High School at the time, leaving the incoherent freshman outside her home in freezing temperatures on the night of the alleged assault.
Barnett, now 19, pleaded guilty and will serve two years of probation. He must pay for up to $1,800 in counseling fees for Daisy, stay away from alcohol and Coleman and her family, and apologize to the girl.
The special prosecutor attributed her decision to charge Barnett with the same misdemeanor count that sparked harsh criticism against Nodaway County prosecutor Robert Rice to a lack of evidence.
“There often is not a witness other than the two parties and there’s often not physical evidence that proves or disproves anything, so juries and prosecutors have to weigh,” said Scott Berkowitz, president of the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
“All they know about the case is what they are hearing from the victim and the perpetrator,” he said. “I think that is the biggest factor that makes these cases hard to prosecute. But when there is alcohol involved, the situation where that most often comes into play is if the victim is saying they were incapacitated and unable to consent, which is often hard to prove after the fact.”
Daisy and her mother, Melinda Coleman, said they are satisfied that Barnett has been held accountable for his actions. While the misdemeanor child endangerment charge fell well short of the felony sexual assault count they thought he deserved, the teen and her mother said they’re hoping for closure after two extremely painful years.
“I am ready to move forward. To all those who supported me, I promise that what happened on January 8, 2012, will not define me forever,” Daisy, now 16, said in a statement provided by Baker. The girl and her family were not in court.
Barnett’s plea agreement, accepted Thursday by Nodaway County Associate Circuit Judge Glen Dietrich, means he won’t have to spend time in jail nor face trial for sexual assault. It also means Daisy — who has spoken extensively with the media about her experience, especially since The Kansas City Star detailed her claims in a lengthy story in October following a seven-month investigation — won’t have to testify in court and be grilled by defense attorneys.
Baker, the Jackson County prosecutor, was brought in from Kansas City to reopen the case amid criticism that Rice wasn’t doing enough when he dismissed a felony charge against Barnett and instead pursued only a misdemeanor child endangerment charge. Melinda Coleman alleged that Rice’s decision to drop the case was politically motivated — Barnett’s grandfather was a four-term Missouri state representative who was a state trooper for 32 years.
Rice denied that, insisting the charge was dropped because the Colemans stopped cooperating. Melinda Coleman said she and her daughter did cooperate with Rice’s office when he was seeking a felony conviction, and only dropped their support because they saw the misdemeanor count as little more than a slap on the wrist.
On Jan. 8, 2012, Daisy and her 13-year-old friend sneaked out of Daisy’s house and were picked up by Barnett and some other boys, including some who were friends with her older brother, and taken to Barnett’s home. The girls admitted that they drank alcohol before sneaking out.
Daisy claimed that when she got to the party, she was given a clear liquid that she drank before being taken into a bedroom and raped while a second boy recorded the act on his cellphone. Investigators have said the video no longer exists.
The 13-year-old was taken into a different room by a 15-year-old boy who forced her to have sex, something the boy admitted doing. His case was handled in the juvenile system and is not public record.
Daisy said she blacked out and doesn’t remember much after arriving at Barnett’s home. Melinda Coleman has said she believes her daughter was given a date-rape drug.
Barnett has not denied the two had sex but has insisted it was consensual. A Missouri State Highway Patrol investigation summary released to reporters Thursday said the girl told investigators it was possible Barnett thought the sex was consensual since he had also been drinking that night.
After more than two months of examining the evidence, Baker came to the same conclusion as Rice: The evidence of a sexual assault was insufficient to gain a conviction on that count.
“It is not the job of a prosecutor to seek convictions. It is the job of the prosecutor to seek justice,” Baker said. “I believe this is the right outcome, given the evidence available in this case. This is justice.”
Barnett’s lawyer, J.R. Hobbs, said “two highly skilled prosecutors from two different jurisdictions have now independently concluded that felony charges are not appropriate in this matter.”
After her story gained wide attention, Daisy was held up as an example of a brave young girl standing up against sexual assaults. The Associated Press generally doesn’t name alleged sexual assault victims, but is naming Daisy because she and her mother have granted public interviews.
In October, Daisy wrote a first-person article for the website xojane.com, in which she likened the incident to falling into a “dark abyss.”
“I not only survived, I didn’t give up,” she wrote for the website.