Two girls, ages 13 and 14, are in a hospital with signs of having been sexually assaulted. Sheriff’s deputies quickly execute a search warrant, gather evidence and obtain confessions from three teenage suspects. The sheriff would say he thought the case would “absolutely” result in prosecutions.
It did not. And that troubling reality deeply undermines confidence that victims can expect fair and impartial justice, at least in Nodaway County, Mo., home of the small city of Maryville.
As Kansas City Star reporter Dugan Arnett detailed in a story this weekend, county Prosecutor Robert Rice dropped all charges filed against Matthew Barnett and Jordan Zech, who were both 17 in January 2012 when the incident occurred. Barnett was originally charged with felony sexual assault and misdemeanor child endangerment; he admitted to having sex with the 14-year-old girl after she had been drinking alcohol. Zech was charged with felony sexual exploitation; investigators said he used a cellphone to record some of the sexual encounter allegedly initiated by Barnett.
A 15-year-old boy who confessed to having sex with the 13-year-old girl against her will was referred to juvenile court.
Barnett and Zech were popular high school athletes. Barnett’s family is well-connected. Daisy Coleman, the 14-year-old victim who is being identified in media reports with her mother’s permission, was new in town. Many in Maryville turned on the victims.
Daisy’s mother, Melinda Coleman, was abruptly fired from her job as a veterinarian. After ongoing harassment forced the family to relocate to another town, their house in Maryville burned down. The cause is undetermined.
In an interview with Arnett, Rice called the teenagers’ conduct “reprehensible” but not criminal.
Many prosecutors and legal experts would disagree. Rice should do the right thing and convene a grand jury to weigh the evidence.
Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, said state law grants elected county prosecutors sole discretion about whether to bring charges. The attorney general gets involved in criminal cases only if a prosecutor requests help or steps away from a case. The events in Maryville should prompt the General Assembly to consider amending state law to give the attorney general review power in certain instances.
Nodaway County Sheriff Darren White told The Star he has “no doubt” a crime was committed. But, speaking of the victims’ families, he opined, “I guess they’re just going to have to get over it.”
Get over it? Daisy Coleman has attempted suicide twice, according to her family. Families don’t “get over” bearing the brunt of sexual assault, bullying, stigmatization and being dumped by the criminal justice system.
We can only hope enough fair-minded Nodaway County voters aren’t “over it” when elections for prosecutor and sheriff next roll around.