A fresh look by an objective prosecutor was badly needed after a teenage sexual assault incident tore apart the small city of Maryville, Mo.
Jean Peters Baker, the Jackson County prosecutor, was a good choice to provide that look. She is known to put justice and the law above all else.
Her decision, announced Thursday, not to file felony charges against any of the teenage boys who allegedly were involved in the incident will undoubtedly disappoint some people. But cases involving acquaintances and alcohol, as this one did, can be murky. The two-year gap since the incident took place likely makes it harder to pin down exactly what happened. And prosecutors must weigh the chances of gaining a conviction against the damage that can be wrought in a high-profile trial.
“My job is to analyze evidence and there was insufficient evidence to go forward on the sexual assault charge,” Baker said in a news conference outside the Nodaway County courthouse.
“Our system of justice works because it is evidence-based,” she added. “We don’t always like the outcome, but it’s evidence-based and it works.”
The prosecutor’s decision doesn’t diminish the appalling nature of what happened to two young girls who slipped out of one’s bedroom to meet up with a popular high school athlete and his friends in January 2012. Both girls, then ages 14 and 13, ended up in a hospital the next day. The older girl and her family, especially, faced harassment and bullying from people in town who supported the boys. The girl and her family were forced to relocate to another town, and their house in Maryville burned down from a cause never determined.
Matthew Barnett pleaded guilty Thursday to a misdemeanor charge of child endangerment. He admitted to abandoning the 14-year-old girl outside her home in the cold after having sex with her at his home. He will not face jail time; he was given a four-month suspended sentence and probation.
That seems lenient, given the anguish the victim and her family have endured. Baker said the sentence was the result of an extended plea negotiation, and said the victim and her mother agreed to the deal. Barnett, now 19, must pay $1,800 in restitution to the victim and complete 100 hours of community service. He has apologized to the victim, which Baker said was genuine.
In the case of the 13-year-old girl, a boy who was 15 at the time acknowledged having sex with the girl against her will. He served two weeks in the custody of Missouri’s Division of Youth Services and then returned home for treatment — another outcome that seems lenient.
A third young man was initially charged with felony sexual exploitation for allegedly videotaping a sexual encounter between Barnett and the 14-year-
old girl. Prosecutors were unable to locate the recording, however.
In contrast to the prosecutor in Nodaway County, who developed an adversarial relationship with the 14-year-old victim and her mother, Baker made it clear that she thought the girl had been harmed. Baker said her task was to reach a resolution that gave the teenager and her family a sense of justice and enabled her to move on with her life.
Sadly, the victim, now 16, is in a hospital this week after a suicide attempt that her mother said was prompted by cruel postings on social media sites.
Indeed, a lack of respect and common decency has been at the heart of this case. Whatever happened two years ago, Barnett and his friends treated the two young girls with shocking callousness. Both victims and their families have been treated badly in the time since.
This is a troubling case that has upended a number of lives. The best thing now is to hope for and work toward healing. And parents might look at Maryville as a case study of all that can go wrong when young people underestimate the value of respect — for themselves and for others.