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Mo. man accused of rape pleads to lesser charge

MARYVILLE, Mo. — A former high school football player, under an agreement with a special prosecutor, pleaded guilty Thursday to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to two years' probation in a sexual assault case that drew national outrage when an initial investigation two years ago ended with the sexual assault charges being dropped.

The case, which shocked this small manufacturing town, played out on social media, which fanned the tension for months and led community members to take sides.

Matthew Barnett, then a 17-year-old senior, initially was charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old freshman girl. Authorities said she had been too drunk to consent to sex and that he later left her, barely conscious, outside her home in the early morning, wearing only light clothing in a temperature of 21 degrees. But the local prosecutor, Robert Rice, dropped the case, saying the girl and her family had stopped cooperating, an assertion they denied.

In October, a special prosecutor, Jean Peters Baker of Kansas City, was appointed by a county judge here to review the case. On Thursday, she said there was not enough evidence to go forward with a sexual assault charge.

Under Missouri law, consensual sex between Barnett and the girl, Daisy Coleman, who spoke out publicly after the case was dropped initially, would not be statutory rape because he was under 21 and she was at least 14.

In the plea deal, Barnett, now 19, pleaded guilty in Nodaway County Circuit Court to endangering the welfare of a child for leaving the girl outside in frigid temperatures. Under the arrangement, Barnett agreed not to consume alcohol and must perform 100 hours of community service, pay $1,800 restitution for counseling for the victim, and undergo substance abuse testing.

Barnett also conveyed a verbal apology for what he had done to Baker, who said she would pass it on to the victim. Baker would not share the details of the apology.

"I believed it was genuine, and I believed it was heartfelt," she said in a news conference.

The plea agreement means Barnett won't have to spend time in jail nor face trial for sexual assault. It also means Daisy won't have to testify in court and be grilled by defense attorneys.

Baker said Daisy Coleman, now 16, was supportive of the plea agreement and read a statement from her.

"Today, I am grateful that the defendant took responsibility by pleading guilty to the charges," the statement said. "I am ready to move forward."

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." He added, "Mr. Barnett truly regrets the actions to which he has pled guilty."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Mo. man accused of rape pleads to lesser charge 01/09/14 [Last modified: Thursday, January 9, 2014 11:12pm]
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