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No sexual assault charges in Maryville case, special prosecutor says

The defendant in the Maryville, Mo., case, Matthew Barnett, 19, pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child. There was insufficient evidence for sexual assault charges, the prosecutor said.

A special prosecutor looking into the alleged rape of teenager Daisy Coleman brought closure to the Maryville, Mo., case Thursday, saying there was insufficient evidence to bring sexual assault charges.

Matthew Barnett, 19, pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor charge, and was given a suspended sentence of 120 days, with several conditions placed on his probation.

The charges stemmed from an incident on Jan. 8, 2012, when Daisy, then 14, snuck out of her house with a friend and attended a party. She and her mother have maintained that she was raped by Mr. Barnett, then a senior at her high school, after being given an intoxicating substance. Barnett said there was consensual sex.

The endangerment charge, which he acknowledged in his plea, stems from his providing her with alcohol and then leaving her outside in freezing weather when she was passed out.

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The case gained widespread public attention when the Kansas City Star published an investigative report in October, after the original prosecutor assigned to the case did not bring rape charges. Special prosecutor Jean Peters Baker was then brought in to reexamine the evidence.

Earlier this week, reports surfaced that Daisy had attempted suicide.

As in other cases – such as Steubenville, Ohio, where two teens were convicted of rape, and the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons in Nova Scotia – cyberbullying allegedly took place after the incident. Groups such as Anonymous also played a role in pressuring for prosecution.

“That’s the modern face of youth rape incidents,” says Amy Adler, a professor at New York University School of Law. “As a rape victim, now one has to manage not just the trauma of the rape, but the trauma of the social media life of the rape, which is endless.”

It’s difficult to tell if coming out publicly as a rape victim and being championed by outside groups might in some cases backfire and cause the victim even more harassment and suffering, Adler says.

Under the plea agreement, Barnett offered a verbal apology to Daisy, which Ms. Baker, the special prosecutor, said she would convey to Daisy at an appropriate time. Barnett will also have to pay $1,800 in restitution to Daisy’s family, avoid contact with the family, do 100 hours of community service this year, and be tested to ensure he’s complying with a requirement to avoid alcohol.

“I believe this is the right outcome, given the evidence available in this case. This is justice,” Baker said in a statement Thursday after a hearing in which the guilty plea was entered.

Had the crime been committed today, however, recent changes to Missouri’s rape laws “could have provided for a different outcome,” says Colleen Coble, CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence in Jefferson City, Mo.

Previously, felony rape in Missouri had to include the element of “forcible compulsion,” such as physical violence, or the offender had to have administered a drug to the victim, Ms. Coble says. Now that charge can be brought if the victim did not consent or was incapacitated or otherwise incapable of consent, she says.

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“Most state laws don’t have that element consistently in their statutes,” Coble says, but the culture is starting to shift, largely because rape survivors and their advocates are pushing “to change the nature of how we think of rape.”

Baker also read a statement from Daisy, with whom she said the plea bargain was discussed in advance: “Today I am grateful that the defendant took responsibility by pleading guilty to the charges. I am ready to move forward.”

In addition, the victim’s mother said in a statement read by Baker: “I hope that today’s resolution of this criminal case brings some closure for my family, especially my children, and for the community.”

Outside the courthouse, Baker told reporters Barnett’s apology was sincere. Referring to Daisy, she implored the press to give “give this young victim her opportunity to heal, her opportunity to create a new narrative for herself.”