Police lines are established outside the Nodaway County Court House in preparation for a “Justice for Daisy” rally in Maryville, Mo., Tuesday, October 22, 2013. (AP Photos/Orlin Wagner)
The latest rape case to capture national attention, this one out of Maryville, Missouri, leaves justice-seekers long on anger and short on options. With a prosecutor who dropped charges and sealed case files, the alleged victim’s last hope is in the hands of a special prosecutor, appointed after a media firestorm cast a harsh light on the town. While the prosecutor may not refile charges, her presence at least offers hope that the process will be a fair one. But recent history offers an interesting twist: If not for a single Supreme Court justice, the legal landscape in Maryville might look very different right now. If only one judge on the right-leaning Rehnquist Court had voted differently in a case decided in 2000, the girl who says she was raped—and Jane Does like her across the country—might have been able to pursue a claim against the young man she says attacked her, whether or not the criminal justice system had her back. But a the majority of Justices endorsed a conservative view of federal power, leaving rape survivors with few options outside of a criminal system notoriously unfriendly to victims of gender-based violence.
In Maryville, 14-year-old Daisy Coleman was allegedly assaulted by a popular high school senior while she was intoxicated and incoherent, before the young man left her on her front lawn in freezing weather. Her 13-year-old friend was allegedly assaulted as well, by another high school boy. An onlooker took a video that circulated in Coleman’s school. Prosecutors brought felony assault and misdemeanor endangerment charges against Coleman’s alleged rapist, Matthew Barnett, then dropped them—they say because there was a lack of evidence and Coleman refused to testify; the Colemans say that because Barnett comes from a well-connected family he is routinely afforded the privilege of authorities looking the other way. After The Kansas City Starbroke the story, it took off, in part because it sounded so similar to the Steubenville rape case, where the sexual assault of a teenager was captured on her peers’ smartphones. The Internet hacker collective Anonymous showed up in Steubenville, and now they’re targeting Maryville, threatening action if justice isn’t done. On Monday, a judge appointed a special prosecutor, Jean Peters Baker, to investigate the case, leaving open the possibility that charges could be refiled. But Peters Baker could also find no wrongdoing on the part of the initial prosecutor and declined to pursue the matter further. And then Coleman will have few legal options.
The Maryville case may seem like an extreme miscarriage of justice. But it’s not that unusual: most rape victims won’t even see their assailants arrested, let alone prosecuted. For every 100 rapes, fewer than half are reported to police. Five end in a conviction and only three conclude with a rapist spending a single day in prison. The overwhelming majority of rape victims never see their attacker punished.