A Missouri prosecutor who dropped charges against a prominent high school football player accused of raping a drunken 14-year-old cheerleader announced Wednesday that he has asked for a special prosecutor to review the case.
Amid public outcry following a Kansas City Star exposé, Nodaway County Prosecuting Attorney Robert Rice told a news conference that he decided to seek the special prosecutor after witnesses agreed to cooperate and because of attacks on the integrity of the local justice system.
"The public trust in our criminal justice system must be upheld at all times," he said.
Rice dropped charges in March 2012, two months after Daisy Coleman claimed she was plied with alcohol and sexually assaulted by the 17-year-old grandson of former state representative Rex Barnett and later dumped in the snow for several hours outside her home in Maryville, Mo. The sexual encounter was recorded by one of three other boys who were present. A 15-year-old boy later admitted having non-consensual sex with Coleman's 13-year-old friend and served time in juvenile detention.
Fueled by the Star's seven-month investigation, activists launched a Twitter campaign on the girls' behalf, and the group known as Anonymous targeted Rice, Sheriff Darren White and the suspects and their friends. Protesters plan to descend on the Maryville courthouse next Tuesday.
Wednesday, the Barnett family lawyer issued a statement and identified Coleman's alleged attacker, Matthew Barnett. He is now a student at University of Central Missouri.
Rice reiterated that there was no political influence on his decision to abandon the prosecution, and he criticized the Star report, which was based on court filings and sealed documents provided by the Coleman family.
"My name was dragged through the mud in that article and I don't appreciate it," he said. "I've spent my entire life trying to work as hard as I can to do the right thing all the time."
He denounced what he called "a couple of baseless rumors that makes everybody think that I'm a crook," adding, "It's not true. It never was true."
Tuesday, Rice said in a statement that he dropped charges because the victims and family members refused to cooperate and invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. But KCUR-FM reported that their statements contradicted what Rice told the public radio station in July: the victims and their families were interviewed by him and the suspects' attorneys.
White, the Nodaway sheriff, also blamed the Colemans, saying the family "absolutely refused to aid in their case in any way."
The Colemans say they were repeatedly harassed for pursuing the case and ultimately driven out of Maryville. Their empty, unsold house burned down in April.
In his press release, Barnett family's attorney Robert Sundell said that based on Missouri law, "no statutory charges would have been available based on the ages of Matt and the alleged victim. Mr. Barnett cooperated with the investigation and freely admitted to the sexual encounter. While many find Matt Barnett's behavior reprehensible, the legal issue was whether a crime was committed.
"Subsequent investigation and interviews raised substantial doubt about the felony charge, specifically including whether the young lady was incapacitated during the encounter. It should be noted that all of the reports used in the Kansas City Star article were those selectively released by the complainant's family."
Missouri law prohibits law enforcement officials from releasing sealed records.
"Since a legal conviction was not possible, it appears some would like to try the case in the court of public opinion," Sundell said. "The Barnett family has since received numerous threats and would request you respect their privacy."
Parallels are being drawn between the Maryville case and the videotaped gang rape of a drunken West Virginia teen in Steubenville, Ohio, in August 2012. Two high school football players were convicted in March.