KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Critics of the way local authorities handled a Missouri case involving a girl who says she was sexually assaulted by an older boy who wasn't prosecuted are applauding the appointment of the Kansas City attorney tasked with re-examining the case.
Jackson County prosecuting attorney Jean Peters Baker, who was named special prosecutor in the Daisy Coleman case on Monday, has handled several other high-profile cases and has been lauded for her work as a victims advocate. She will either validate Nodaway County prosecutor Robert Rice's assessment that there wasn't sufficient evidence to justify charges, or she'll give a jury a chance to decide the matter.
"It will be a thorough review without fear or favor," Baker said at a news conference in which she stressed she will not be discussing her investigation with the media. "Until we delve into the particulars, we will have no idea how long it will take to complete that review. And we have no idea what that result will be."
Daisy says that in January 2012, when she was a 14-year-old freshman, a 17-year-old boy from her Maryville high school took her to his house, gave her alcohol and raped her. The boy, now 19, acknowledged that they had sex but said it was consensual. The Associated Press isn't naming him because he isn't charged. The AP generally doesn't name the alleged victims of sex crimes, but is naming Daisy because she and her mother, Melinda Coleman, have been granting public interviews about the case.
News of Baker's appointment got high marks from the Coleman family and others who have argued that Rice didn't treat the case fairly. Rice initially filed felony charges against the boy and another 17-year-old boy who recorded cellphone video of the encounter, but he dropped the charges a few months later.
"I don't believe there is another person within the entire state who would be better at handling this case," said Courtney Cole, a Kansas City women's rights activist who organized a recent rally for Daisy on Maryville's courthouse square. "The fact that she's a woman, and given her reputation and professionalism, I'm very confident it will be handled properly."
Rice has said he had no choice but to drop the charges because Daisy and her mother stopped cooperating with the investigation. Melinda Coleman, whose family has since moved to Albany, about 40 miles east of Maryville, called that a lie and said she and her daughter were willing to do whatever it takes to get justice.
Daisy's supporters allege that Rice dropped the charges because of insensitivity, prosecutorial ambivalence and political pressure from the boy's grandfather, who is a retired state trooper and four-term state legislator. Rice and the grandfather deny the allegations.
There won't likely be any such accusations against Baker, who is seen even by attorneys who have opposed her as someone who is fair and stands by her convictions.
"I think her only motivation is to do the right thing," said Kansas City trial lawyer Brian Gaddy, who has been her courtroom adversary several times. "I don't think she's persuaded by public opinion or what's politically correct and will do what's right."
According to Baker's bio on her personal website, she was the Jackson County prosecutor's office's victim advocate of the year in 2005. She also has served as a court-appointed special advocate representative and is currently a board member of the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault.
Her prosecution of Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn last year for not notifying authorities about child sexual abuse allegations involving a priest in his diocese showed she can handle high-pressure cases in which public sentiment is sharply divided.
Months before Finn's September 2012 guilty plea made him the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic official convicted of a crime in the church's sexual abuse scandal, Baker told the AP that there were those who said she shouldn't have filed the charge against the bishop.
"The prosecutor is not in the business of pleasing people," she said at the time.
It's not unusual for county prosecutors to seek outside help in handling cases, especially when there's a potential conflict of interest, Stone County prosecutor Matt Selby said.
Stone County prosecutor Matt Selby, the new president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said Baker is a good choice for the Maryville case because of her expertise, experience with high-profile cases and the vast resources of her office.
"There's no way I could afford the time out of the office or the distance going up there and dealing with something like that," he said.
Selby said Baker's appointment will also allay concerns of any political interference in the case, particularly if she determines, like Rice, that the evidence is insufficient to justify charges.
"If you're going to have somebody else look at the case and try to bring some of the emotion down, taking out anything that appears political would seem to make sense," he said.
At the Maryville rally this week, Cole said she and other Daisy supporters would be able to live with whatever Baker concludes.
"To me, justice does not equate to a guilty verdict," Cole said. "That's not my position at all. That's for the judicial system to figure out. Whatever decision is made, I'm going to have to respect that."
Baker's personal website: www.jeanpetersbaker.com