A travesty of justice likely took place in 2012 in Maryville, Missouri regarding the rape of a 14 year-old girl by a high school senior. Because the defendant comes from a political family with ties to the local DA, charges of a conspiracy to scuttle charges have captured media attention as much as any aspect of the crime. While salacious and disturbing, I’m willing to bet they aren’t true.
That’s not to say I don’t think the defendant, now a college student who was apparently still tweeting misogynistic messages until fairly recently, didn’t benefit from who he was and where he came from. The victim and her family were also likely disadvantaged by being “outsiders” from another community. But at this point, my guess is the reality is more mundane. I don’t think the case was derailed by a coordinated effort involving the DA and law enforcement to protect Matthew Barnett because of his ties to a former legislator and sitting Congressman.
Far more likely, Robert Rice, the DA responsible for dropping first felony and then misdemeanor charges, simply felt unprepared and discouraged from taking them to trial. If so, he’s far from alone in not knowing how to make the most of good police work and common sense in a sexual abuse case involving alcohol and adolescent behavior.
I’m careful here, as I am in every case I comment on, to stress that I’ve neither considered the case the way Rice has, nor am I familiar with his jury pool and legal culture.
That said, it appears he had quite a bit to go on.
Victim Daisy Coleman was found by her mother, freezing on her porch and still intoxicated; Barnett and the group that drove her home abandoned her outside of her house in 22 degree weather. Her mother saw signs of physical distress to her ano-genital area, and an immediate report was made, the child taken to a hospital. Seven hours after her last drink, her blood alcohol content (BAC) was .13%. Inexperienced drinkers cannot generally reach a .13 without serious signs of intoxication, and she was likely much higher at the time she was raped. Barnett admitted to sexual intercourse on Daisy. A friend apparently video-taped the act. Other witnesses, including Daisy’s 13 year-old friend who was also raped (her 15 year-old assailant confessed as much), reported that Daisy was between crying and incoherent as they left Barnett’s home, and had to be carried from the bedroom. Evidence of drinking was collected the following day.
The case looks- in any legal environment in the U.S. and I have seen most of them- eminently triable. Rice was benefitted by quick and competent police work, a confession to sexual contact, and a concerned mother rightfully terrified and appalled. He dropped charges anyway. Rice says he dropped them at least in part because the Coleman’s asserted 5th Amendment privileges before a deposition, but Melinda Coleman, Daisy’s mother, insists that this was 1) only after felony charges had already been dropped and 2) a short-lived decision that she reversed the next day, agreeing to cooperate. Rice’s other reasoning involves what he calls a lack of evidence and what appeared to him as “incorrigible teenagers” drinking and having sex. If that’s truly how he feels, he has a tragic misunderstanding of the dynamics of sexual assault.
First, I’m not sure what 5th Amendment privileges could have been asserted that Rice could not have proffered immunity for in order to pursue a far more serious case. Second, if Rice thinks his case was too light on evidence to bring in good faith to a jury, I can only say that myself and others- often in very challenging legal environments- have successfully taken cases forward with less.
Rice has done the right thing by asking a judge to appoint a special prosecutor and re-open the case. The Colemans appear ready to cooperate, and I hope the new prosecutor views the case differently, assuming what I know is accurate and complete.
Whatever happens, I believe Rice’s declaration that “there wasn’t any prosecuting attorney who could take that case to trial” should be publicly proven both defeatist and inaccurate. But I’m not willing at this point to believe his motivations are worse than that.