Matthew Barnett walks into the courthouse with his legal counsel J.R. Hobbs for a hearing on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 in Maryville, Mo. Barnett is accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old schoolmate when he was 17 has been charged with misdemeanor child endangerment. Special prosecutor Jean Peters Baker has been re-examining the girl's allegations that Barnett raped her at a January 2012 house party, when he was a Maryville High School senior and she was a freshman. (AP Photo/The Kansas City Star, The Kansas City Star) KANSAS CITY OUT
Thursday, January 09, 2014 10:31 pm
Mo. man accused of rape pleads to lesser charge
By BILL DRAPERAssociated Press
While the misdemeanor child endangerment charge to which Matthew Barnett, 19, pleaded guilty Thursday fell well short of the felony sexual assault count they thought he deserved, Daisy Coleman and her mother, Melinda Coleman, said they're now hoping for closure after two extremely painful years.
"I am ready to move forward," Daisy Coleman, now 16, said in a statement provided by special prosecutor Jean Peters Baker. "To all those who supported me, I promise that what happened on January 8, 2012, will not define me forever."
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 Nodaway County prosecutor Robert Rice wasn't doing enough when he dismissed a felony charge against Barnett and instead pursued only a misdemeanor child endangerment charge against the Maryville native. 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 the boy'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."
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.
Wearing a blue shirt and tie, and answering "Yes, sir" to procedural questions from the judge, Barnett was sentenced immediately after his plea Thursday to two years of probation and a four-month suspended jail term. Other conditions of the deal bar him from drinking, going to bars and contacting the Colemans. He must perform 100 hours of community service and, as a precondition to the plea bargain, had to apologize to Daisy - which he has provided to Baker's office.
The Colemans didn't attend the hearing.
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. Further, there is absolutely no evidence that political favoritism played a role in the decision of either prosecutor."
Several factors weighed on Baker as she pondered the case: the conflicting stories, the fog of intoxication on the night of the incident and the disappearance of the cellphone video that might have brought clarity to what happened.
"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."
Associated Press writer Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.