Embattled Nodaway County Prosecuting Attorney Robert L. Rice on Wednesday announced that he had cleared the way for the possibility of new charges being filed in a sexual assault case that has received international attention.
In a news conference outside the county courthouse in Maryville, Rice said he had asked a judge to appoint a special prosecutor in the case.
“The public trust in our criminal justice system must be upheld at all times,” he said.
He said he decided to ask for the special prosecutor after witnesses in the case said this week that they would cooperate with the investigation.
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“Until that time,” Rice said Wednesday, “the witnesses never told me they were willing to cooperate and testify after they invoked their Fifth Amendment right in a deposition under oath.”
Rice’s account of the witnesses’ cooperation differs from that of Melinda Coleman, mother of one alleged victim, who contended in a story in The Star on Sunday and other media appearances this week that she had willingly spoken with authorities until Rice dropped the two most serious felony charges in March 2012, two months after he’d filed them.
Coleman was happy to hear that the case would have another look.
“I feel like that’s just so great,” she told The Star after Rice’s announcement. “Because at least we’re getting a fair shot. At least our story’s getting heard and not just swept under the rug.”
At his news conference, Rice said the Colemans’ refusal to testify was taken “under oath with a court reporter.” Because the case remains closed, its documents are sealed.
“Trust me when I say I would love to show you that document,” Rice said.
Rice declined to give the date of the deposition or to clarify whether the witnesses’ invocation of their Fifth Amendment rights occurred before the felony charges were dropped.
“What I assure you is this,” Rice said of the Colemans. “Their cooperation was not there.”
He said the deposition shows that the family clearly understood that he would have to dismiss the case.
“We were very careful, very deliberate,” he said, “to make sure we recorded that there was no misunderstanding. That, at that time, when they invoked their Fifth Amendment right, by doing so it would force the dismissal of the case.”
Coleman says Rice never adequately explained his decision to drop the felony charges in March 2012.
A letter written to Rice by Coleman’s attorney on March 19, a week after the charges had been dismissed, states: “I called your office multiple times last week in an attempt to obtain accurate information so that I could explain your decision to my client. You did not return my telephone calls.”
About two months later, after speaking with a victims’ advocate, Coleman says, she went to Rice’s office and recorded a taped statement declaring that she and her daughter would invoke their Fifth Amendment rights not to testify. The reason, she told The Star, was that she didn’t want to put her daughter through the anguish of reliving the incident with only a misdemeanor charge at stake. She says she changed her mind a day later.
The Maryville case has been the subject of intense attention since a Kansas City Star story on Sunday detailed the alleged sexual assault of then-14-year-old Daisy Coleman and her 13-year-old friend on Jan. 8, 2012.
Matthew Barnett, the grandson of a once-prominent Nodaway County politician, was originally arrested and charged in connection with the incident with Daisy.
Barnett, now a college student, claimed the encounter with Daisy was consensual, although county law enforcement officials said they had obtained audio and video confessions in the case.
Another 17-year-old, Jordan Zech, was charged with sexual exploitation of a minor for allegedly videotaping the sexual encounter. And a 15-year-old boy was charged in juvenile court for having nonconsensual sex with Daisy’s friend.
Less than three months after the alleged assault, Rice decided to dismiss the felony charges against Barnett and Zech, claiming a lack of evidence and additional information brought to his attention about the encounter.
Melinda Coleman maintained that a friend with local political ties told her a week earlier in March that favors were being called in and that the charges would be dropped.
Rice has denied any political influence on his decision. Wednesday, he reacted angrily to the criticism of it.
“I’ve spent my entire life trying to work as hard as I can to do the right thing all the time,” he said, “and then someone can throw out a couple of baseless rumors that makes everybody think that I’m a crook.”
Barnett, the one-time suspect, has not spoken publicly since The Star’s story appeared on Sunday. In a statement this week, his attorney, Robert Sundell, maintained his client’s innocence of criminal activity in connection with the incident. “Mr. Barnett cooperated with the investigation and freely admitted to the sexual encounter,” the statement said.
Sundell could not be immediately reached for reaction to Rice’s announcement that he’d asked for a special prosecutor.
Zech’s attorney has declined to comment on the case.
Reiterating what The Star reported Sunday, Coleman says that in late May 2012, she and her daughter did decline to participate in a deposition, but only after the two felony charges — sexual assault and sexual exploitation of a minor — were dropped on March 13, 2012.
The following day, however, after discussing it with Daisy, she said she returned to Rice’s office, declining to sign a form backing up her previous day’s statement and telling Rice she wished to participate in a deposition for the remaining misdemeanor charge.
In late July, she says, she and Daisy met with Rice, Sundell and a court reporter to go over the events surrounding Daisy’s being left in freezing temperatures in the early morning hours of Jan. 8. During that meeting, Coleman says, Rice yelled at her and demanded to know where she’d heard that political favors had been called in. Rice has denied ever raising his voice during that deposition.
In his statement this week, Sundell said, “While many find Matt Barnett’s behavior reprehensible, the legal issue was whether a crime was committed.”
Sundell contended that there were questions about whether Daisy was incapacitated at the time of intercourse.
In their statements to the sheriff’s office, both girls admitted to drinking in Daisy’s bedroom before sneaking out and being driven to the Barnett home. According to one of the boys present that night, “earlier in the night, Daisy Coleman had texted Matt and told Matt that she was drunk, so she had been drinking before she got to Matt’s house.”
When the girls arrived, according to both Daisy and the 13-year-old, Daisy was given multiple drinks, which she drank. That, Daisy told a sheriff’s office official the next day, is the last thing she remembers. In the sheriff’s report, Barnett and another boy present claim Daisy drank more after having sex with Barnett, but the 13-year-old girl said that Daisy, unable to walk and crying, had to be carried from Barnett’s bedroom. The following morning, roughly seven hours after leaving the Barnett home, Daisy’s blood alcohol level was 0.13, according to a medical report — nearly twice the legal limit.
In his press conference, Rice also addressed questions regarding a Smartphone video that was taken of Barnett’s sexual encounter. He said that press reports that the video could not be found misrepresented the facts.
The telephone video had been erased and could not be retrieved even by criminal forensic experts at a crime lab in Kansas City, Rice said.
Asked whether he thought the prosecution would now be successful given the cooperation of state witnesses, Rice said he would not make a conjecture.
“It is not my opinion anymore,” he said. “We’re going to let a new prosecutor take a look at that.”
Judge Roger Prokes is the presiding judge in Missouri’s 4th Circuit, which includes Nodaway County. Under state law, judges appoint special prosecutors at the request of a county prosecutor, one legal expert said.
There is no indication when Prokes or a designee will consider Rice’s request. It is also unclear how long a special prosecutor will examine the case if one is appointed.
Timeline of events
Prosecuting Attorney Robert L. Rice said Wednesday he had dropped charges in the case because the victim had invoked her right against self-incrimination. The victim’s mother, Melinda Coleman, has consistently said she and her daughter stopped cooperating only after two felony charges were dropped. Rice would not provide a timeline, saying the case file was sealed. The following timeline comes from police reports and Coleman:
Two girls say they were sexually assaulted. Two boys were arrested in the case of Coleman’s daughter, one charged with a felony and a misdemeanor and the other charged with a felony.
Rice drops the felony charges. The Colemans, through their attorney, ask for an explanation but say they didn’t hear back.
A day after invoking her Fifth Amendment rights, Melinda Coleman says she changed her mind and accepts Rice’s invitation to discuss the remaining misdemeanor charge.
The Colemans give a deposition to Rice and a defense lawyer, but Melinda Coleman says she did not return to sign the transcripts. Rice soon drops the misdemeanor charge.