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Special prosecutor in Maryville rape brings the right talents to the case

FILE - In this Aug. 3, 2012 file photo, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker addresses the media during a news conference, in Kansas City, Mo. A northwest Missouri circuit court clerk says Baker has been picked to investigate a Maryville teen rape case that has gained national attention for the way it was handled by the local prosecutor. (AP Photo/The Kansas City Star, Mike Ransdell, File) Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker  in 2012. (Mike Ransdell/The Kansas City Star via AP)

MARYVILLE, Mo. — Finally there’s some good news out of my home town: the appointment of Jean Peters Baker as the special prosecutor to look into the case of Daisy Coleman, the Maryville teenager who says she was given alcohol and then raped by a popular high school football player in January 2012.

I can’t think of a better choice than Baker, the Jackson County prosecutor (over the Kansas City metropolitan area), to sort out the details of what actually happened in the early morning hours of Jan. 9, 2012 and to determine what, if any, charges should be filed.

In a statement to reporters, Baker promised to look at the case that has attracted international attention “without fear and without favor,” explaining that she will be directly involved in the review. “Politics, connections or any other reason you can think of, will not play a role in our review of this case. It will be the evidence.”

Nodaway County Prosecutor Robert Rice asked for the appointment of a special prosecutor Wednesday as a response to the  controversy surrounding the case after the Kansas City Star ran an investigative article on the front page Oct. 13 that led to the involvement of the activist hacker group Anonymous and outrage across social media.

It’s a tale reminiscent of what happened in Steubenville, involving teenagers, alcohol and sex — and whether it was rape or consensual depends on whom you ask. There was even videotaping on a cellphone by one of the boys present.

Although felony charges were filed almost immediately in 2012 against Matthew Barnett for sexual assault and Jordan Zech for sexual exploitation of a minor (for videotaping), they were later dropped by Rice, who said Daisy and her mother, Melinda Coleman, failed to cooperate with the investigation.

The Colemans vehemently deny that, instead blaming the political connections of Barnett; his grandfather, Rex, a retired Missouri state highway patrolman, served four terms in the Missouri state legislature from 1994 to 2002.

Baker, the special prosecutor, is a Democrat (and was appointed by 4th Circuit Associate Judge Glen Dietrich, also a Democrat). Rex Barnett is a Republican, as is Nodaway County Prosecutor Robert Rice.

No one can accuse Baker of pandering to whatever political power the Barnett family might still hold in Nodaway County. She owes them no political favors.

Baker is also, obviously, female, and should be more sympathetic to rape victims than Nodaway County Sheriff Darren White, who told the Kansas City Star, “I guess they’re just going to have to get over it” in discussing the Colemans and the charges that were dropped.

Then there’s Baker’s experience in the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office where she worked in nearly every unit, including Sex Crimes. She’s not afraid of controversy or tackling tough issues. She was responsible for the prosecution of  Bishop Robert Finn, the first Catholic bishop in the country convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse.

She’s tough; she reminds me of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who actually hired Baker more than 15 years ago as an intern when McCaskill was the first woman elected Jackson County prosecutor.

Since then, Baker has worked her way up through the ranks, got appointed to fill out the term of prosecutor in 2011 and was elected in 2012 with no opposition.

Baker cautioned that her review of the case will take time and she does not plan to comment to the media during the process.

As for the Colemans, who have been appearing almost every day on CNN, Melinda Coleman said on “The Lead with Jake Tapper” that they just wanted the case to be looked at “fairly, and with some enthusiasm.”

I think Baker can, and will, do that.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

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