Two years and a day after an alcohol-infused house party led to sexual assault allegations, a 19-year-old Nodaway County man pleaded guilty Thursday to a charge of misdemeanor child endangerment.
Matthew Barnett of Maryville also apologized to his victim, who was 14 at the time.
Facing reporters after the 20-minute plea hearing, prosecutors said they did not have the evidence to file a felony sexual assault charge.
“There was insufficient evidence,” said Jean Peters Baker, the Jackson County prosecuting attorney appointed special prosecutor in a case that has garnered international attention. “In this case, and every case, it boils down to the evidence.”
Baker filed the endangerment charge Thursday morning, just hours before Barnett, accompanied by his parents, entered court to plead guilty.
As part of a plea agreement, Barnett admitted that he endangered Daisy Coleman when he left her, barefoot and incoherent in freezing temperatures, in her front yard at 2 a.m. Jan. 8, 2012. She was found there three hours later. Her brother told Missouri Highway Patrol investigators that her face was blue, her hair was frozen and she “didn’t look alive.”
The incident, which Baker described as a “horrible night,” followed a party at Barnett’s home, where he and Daisy had sex. Daisy has said she was so intoxicated at that time that she has no recollection of the encounter. Barnett maintains that the sex was consensual.
Nodaway County Associate Circuit Judge Glen Dietrich sentenced Barnett on Thursday to 120 days of confinement but suspended the sentence and placed Barnett on two years of probation. Additionally, he ordered Barnett to avoid alcohol, bars and liquor stores, verbally apologize to Daisy, have no more contact with her, perform 100 hours of community service and reimburse Daisy’s family for her mental health treatment, a total not to exceed $1,800.
Though the sentence was suspended, the conviction will remain on Barnett’s permanent criminal record.
Thursday’s plea agreement had been under discussion for more than a month, Baker said.
Baker met with Barnett, a student at the University of Central Missouri, before the hearing to receive the apology, which she will pass along to Daisy.
“This was the outcome we believe was the right and just outcome in this case,” Baker said during a news conference after the hearing.
Barnett sat quietly for much of the hearing, answering most of Dietrich’s questions with a simple “yes, sir” or “no, sir.”
His lawyer, J.R. Hobbs of Kansas City, did most of the talking on Barnett’s behalf.
“Matthew Barnett accepts full responsibility for the conduct charged,” Hobbs said afterward. “To be clear, the misdemeanor charge ... accurately reflects the conduct for which he should be held accountable.”
The case generated outrage in October after The Kansas City Star published a detailed account of Daisy Coleman’s allegation that Barnett sexually assaulted her. Not long after the party, Barnett faced a felony sexual assault charge as well as a child endangerment misdemeanor count. Nodaway County’s prosecutor later dropped both charges.
The endangerment charge Baker filed Thursday is the same count that Nodaway County Prosecutor Robert Rice dropped in the summer of 2012, citing lack of cooperation from the Coleman family.
Without referring to Daisy or her mother, Melinda Coleman, by name, Baker said both supported this resolution of a case that focused a harsh light on teenage drinking and its too-often brutal consequences.
Baker read a statement from Daisy that said: “Today I am grateful that the defendant took responsibility by pleading guilty to the charges. I am ready to move forward.”
Daisy, now 16, was hospitalized in Kansas City earlier this week after a purported suicide attempt, a family friend told The Star. That friend, Robin Bourland, said Daisy ingested pills Sunday evening in an incident that stemmed from online harassment. She said Thursday that Daisy, though still hospitalized, was recovering well.
A statement released Thursday from Daisy’s mother said: “I hope that today’s resolution of this criminal case brings some closure for my family, especially my children, and for the community. These last two years have been extremely painful. But today I hope somehow, some way that something good will come from this.”
Baker asked that the public give the victim an opportunity to heal and create a new narrative in her life.
Court records filed Thursday gave this account of the incident:
“The defendant acted with criminal negligence in a manner that created a substantial risk to the life, body and health of D.C., a child less than 17 years old, by providing D.C. with alcohol until she was substantially intoxicated and impaired, and then leaving D.C. outside of her home in the below-freezing temperatures when D.C. was incapable of protecting or caring for herself.”
Daisy stayed on the lawn for about three hours, the records said, during a time that the temperature fell to 21 degrees. She was wearing only a T-shirt and yoga pants.
Earlier, after Daisy had gone to the Barnett residence, “she was provided vodka and was taunted by the other males present to drink from the ‘bitch cup,’ which she did,” the records said. After drinking from it, Daisy did not recall any subsequent events. “(She) advised the next thing she remembered was waking up in her yard.”
About 8 a.m. that morning, more than six hours after she had been left in the cold, Daisy’s blood-alcohol content tested at 0.13 percent, court records said.
A six-page Missouri Highway Patrol report summarized the agency’s investigation of the case, which the patrol did at Baker’s request. It includes parts of an interview with Daisy, during which she was asked whether Barnett could have “been under the impression the reported sexual contact could have been consensual.”
According to the report, Daisy answered: “He was drinking, too, so yeah, he could have.”
At the time, Barnett was on probation for driving while intoxicated.
In the original Nodaway County sheriff’s report, which was sealed following the dismissal of the original charges but obtained by The Star, multiple witnesses told authorities that Daisy — incapacitated, crying and unable to walk — had to be carried from the Barnett residence. She was driven home, where, two witnesses said, she was left on her lawn.
According to two boys in the car, Barnett and a friend then talked about calling one of Daisy’s brothers and telling him they had found Daisy drunk at a party and had dropped her off at home. The goal, according to one of the youths, was to keep anybody from finding out they’d had sex with Daisy and her 13-year-old friend.
A 15-year-old Nodaway County boy later admitted in juvenile court that he had sex with the 13-year-old, despite her protests. He spent two weeks in the custody of state juvenile authorities and was released for further treatment at home.
A third youth initially faced a charge of sexual exploitation of a minor after admitting to taking a cell-phone video of Daisy and Barnett. Authorities never found the video.
“We tried to obtain the video, and without the video, there is no charge,” Baker said Thursday.
Local interest in the case was fed, in part, by a suspicion that political influence had played a part in Rice’s decision to drop the charges, an accusation Rice repeatedly has denied.
Rice is a Republican. Barnett is the grandson of a once-prominent Nodaway County Republican state legislator.
Baker is a Democrat, as is the judge who appointed her.
Asked whether Thursday’s court hearing vindicated Rice, she told reporters, “That would be your analysis.”
Barnett’s attorney responded more strongly.
“Two highly skilled prosecutors from two different jurisdictions have now independently concluded that felony charges are not appropriate in this matter,” Hobbs said. “Further, there is absolutely no evidence that political favoritism played a role in the decision of either prosecutor.”