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Nearly Two Years Later, A Controversial Rape Case Is Reviewed

Daisy Coleman, now 16, looks at trophies and other awards she's won for beauty pageants, dancing and sports. She has attempted suicide at least twice since waking up in freezing temperatures on her doorstep.
Peggy Lowe
Daisy Coleman, now 16, looks at trophies and other awards she's won for beauty pageants, dancing and sports. She has attempted suicide at least twice since waking up in freezing temperatures on her doorstep.

Nearly two years after allegations of a sexual assault rocked a small Missouri town, the case may be reopened.

A county prosecutor in Maryville, Mo., has requested that an independent attorney look at accusations of rape and other charges against two former high school athletes — despite his earlier decision to drop the case.

The Internet activist group Anonymous, which crusaded for another high-profile rape case, is taking credit for this turnaround.

The Events

The first thing Daisy Coleman remembers is her surprise that she was still alive.

Back on Jan. 8, 2012, Daisy was found at 5 a.m. propped up on the porch of her family's home in Maryville, a town of 12,000 set in farm country. The 14-year-old had been outside about three hours, unconscious, in freezing temperatures in just a T-shirt and sweatpants. Her hair was wet; vomit was splattered nearby. She doesn't remember dragging herself to the front door.

"What I do remember is me and my friend were drinking in my bedroom without my mom's permission," she says. "And then this guy texted me and he's like, 'Hey, you want to hang out?' And I was like, 'Well, I'll have to sneak around. It's like 1 in the morning.' "

The guy who texted Coleman was Matthew Barnett, then a 17-year-old high school athlete. Barnett picked up Daisy and her 13-year-old friend. Along with some other boys, they sneaked into Barnett's parents' home, where they drank more.

According to sheriff's reports, Barnett admitted to having sex with Coleman but said it was consensual. His buddy, then-17-year-old Jordan Zech, videotaped part of it on an iPhone. Another underage boy said he had sex with Daisy's friend despite her saying "no," the reports said.

"Did a crime occur?" Sheriff Darren White said in July, when NPR member station KCUR reported the story. "Hell yes, it occurred. Was it a horrible crime? Yes, it was a horrible crime. Did these boys need to be punished for it? Absolutely."

The Charges

Barnett and Zech were charged as adults under Missouri law and the underage boy was prosecuted as a juvenile.

But then a toxic mix of small-town gossip and social media kicked in.

Coleman says she was cyberbullied by the boys' friends. Her mom, Melinda Coleman, accused law enforcement of protecting the boys. Authorities accused her of being uncooperative.

Then came the next blow to the family: County prosecutor Robert Rice dropped the case, just three months after the charges were filed, citing insufficient evidence.

Rice, an up-and-coming Republican, was accused of dropping the charges because of the Barnett family's deep political ties — Matthew Barnett's grandfather, Rex, is a former state legislator. Rice denies that claim.

Sheriff White blamed the alleged victim and her family for destroying the case. "We have victims that are harpooning the case," he said. "At least the suspects were smart enough to keep their mouths shut after it all happened."

The Reaction

The boys graduated from high school and went to college in nearby towns. The Colemans moved 40 miles away, and Daisy, now 16, struggled with the aftermath of the alleged sexual assault. She attempted suicide at least twice.

"I just felt like if I'm this ugly on the inside, I might as well look it on the outside," she says. "You're the s-word, you're the w-word, ... b-word. Just, after a while, you start to believe it."

But the Colemans didn't give up. She and her mother talked to local NPR member station KCUR and other reporters. The stories gained traction online, and the self-proclaimed Internet "hactivist" group Anonymous took up the cause via YouTube.

"If Maryville won't defend these young girls," the video says, "if the police are too cowardly or corrupt to do their jobs, if the justice system has abandoned them, then someone else will have to stand for them."

Anonymous is a mostly online collective of international activists. The group is credited with leaking the video of the rape victim in the Steubenville, Ohio, case last year, which led to the conviction of two young men. This week, Anonymous called for a "Twitterstorm" to spread word of the case, and other social media users planned a protest for Maryville next week.

Law enforcement reacted. At a press conference Wednesday, Rice said he has "asked the court to appoint a special prosecuting attorney to conduct an independent review of the facts and determine whether to refile charges."

Barnett's mother — visibly angry — told reporters that her son is being threatened and needs an escort to his classes. The Colemans are thrilled that the case is being re-examined. And the protest that was set for next week is now being called a candlelight rally for justice.

Note: NPR does not normally identify alleged rape victims, but does so in this case because Coleman and her family have publicly identified themselves in the media.

Copyright 2013 KCUR 89.3

Peggy Lowe
Peggy Lowe joined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.