MARYVILLE, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri man accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old schoolmate when he was 17 pleaded guilty Thursday to misdemeanor child endangerment — a far less serious crime than the rape charges the girl and her family had been pursuing.
Matt Barnett, wearing a blue shirt and tie, entered the plea during a court hearing in his hometown of Maryville, a college town about 85 miles north of Kansas City. He was sentenced to two years of probation and a four-month suspended jail term, and he can't drink, go to bars or contact the girl, Daisy Coleman, or her family.
Jean Peters Baker, who was brought in as a special prosecutor to re-examine the case in October, said she had spoken to Daisy and her mother, Melinda Coleman, and that both were "satisfied" with her decision to press the child endangerment count.
The Colemans didn't attend the hearing, but Baker circulated a news release from the family after the hearing.
"Today I am grateful that the defendant took responsibility by pleading guilty to the charges. I am ready to move forward," Daisy said. In the same release, her 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."
The Associated Press generally doesn't name alleged victims of sexual assault but is naming Daisy because she and her mother have granted public interviews.
Daisy alleged that Barnett raped her at a house party in January 2012, when he was a senior and she was a freshman at Maryville High School. Barnett says the sex was consensual.
Nothing in the probable cause statement, charging documents or Thursday's court hearing addressed Daisy's sexual assault claims. Baker's review of the evidence and the previous investigation by Nodaway County left her with nothing to advance a sexual assault case, she said.
"Legally, we could not get that charge over the bar," she said. "I could not file that charge."
Barnett's lawyer, J.R. Hobbs, said "two highly skilled prosecutors from two different jurisdictions have now independently concluded that felony charges are not appropriate in this matter. Further, there is absolutely no evidence that political favoritism played a role in the decision of either prosecutor."
Baker was brought in to re-examine the case after the local prosecutor, Nodaway County prosecutor Robert Rice, was criticized for dropping it. He alleged that Daisy's family had stopped cooperating — a claim Daisy and her mother deny.
Before dropping the case, Rice had been pursuing the same second-degree misdemeanor child endangerment charge filed Thursday by Baker.
Melinda Coleman contended that authorities hadn't done enough to push the investigation forward, and she alleged that Rice's decision to drop the case was politically motivated — Barnett's grandfather was a four-term Missouri state representative who was a state trooper for 32 years. Rice has denied the accusation.
Coleman said her daughter was harassed mercilessly on social media sites and at school after going to the authorities, and that it forced the family to move back to Albany, about 40 miles west of Maryville.
On Jan. 8, 2012, Daisy and her 13-year-old friend sneaked out of Daisy's house and were picked up by Barnett and some other boys, including some who were friends with her older brother, and taken to the home of one of the boys. The girls admitted that they drank alcohol before sneaking out.
Daisy claimed that when she got to the party, she was given a clear liquid that she drank before being taken into a bedroom and raped while a second boy recorded the act on his cellphone.
The 13-year-old was taken into a different room by a 15-year-old boy who forced her to have sex, something the boy admitted doing. His case was handled in the juvenile system and is not public record.
Daisy said she blacked out and doesn't remember much after arriving at the boy's home. Melinda Coleman has said she believes her daughter was given a date-rape drug.
Coleman said she awoke around 5 a.m. to a clawing sound at the front door and found her daughter shivering in sub-freezing temperatures. She said she was giving Daisy a bath to warm her up when she noticed signs that she had been assaulted.
Charging documents filed in court says Barnett "acted with criminal negligence ... by providing D.C. with alcohol until she was substantially intoxicated and impaired, and then leaving D.C. outside her home in the below-freezing temperatures when D.C. was incapable of protecting or caring for herself."
The story gained national attention in October after The Kansas City Star published a lengthy account of Daisy's claims, which the newspaper spent seven months investigating. The case and resulting publicity shook the small college town of Maryville, which was widely criticized on social media for turning its back on an alleged sexual assault victim.
The outcry led to a protest on Maryville's courthouse square in which a few hundred people showed up to show their support for Daisy and lambaste what they labeled as a "rape culture" that allowed the girl's assailant to go unpunished.
"I'm really glad this case was able to be looked at again," Courtney Cole, who helped organize the courthouse protest, said before the hearing. "This was a difficult case because it was two years old. They had a difficult job, given the amount of time that had passed.
"I respect the decision they made. I think it shows the case never should have been closed to begin with."