MARYVILLE, Mo. (AP) — The case of a 14-year-old girl who says she was raped by an older boy from her Missouri high school and left passed out on her porch in freezing temperatures is expected to get a fresh start under a special prosecutor.
A special prosecutor will be able to launch his own investigation, interview witnesses and work independently from the local prosecutor who's faced intense scrutiny for dropping felony charges in the case last year, experts said Thursday.
"The idea is really to have a third party who is removed from the process, who can bring the appearance of objectivity and neutrality," said Richard Reuben, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law. "At the end of the day they would look like a prosecutor who is truly independent."
The new prosecutor's final decision carries high stakes: It could settle the debate over whether Rice was right to drop the charges, or validate the accusers' outrage by pushing the case toward a trial.
Nodaway County prosecutor Robert Rice filed a motion Thursday for a judge to appoint a special prosecutor in the case, which has gained new attention and an outpouring of responses of social media following a Kansas City Star investigation. The girl's family also spoke out this summer to Kansas City radio station KCUR.
The case and the publicity has shaken the small college town of Maryville, where the girl's mother, Melinda Coleman, said her family was forced to move after being harassed over the allegations. Her house in Maryville burned down while the family was trying to sell it, but a cause hasn't been determined.
Coleman, was outraged when Rice dropped felony charges in March 2012, two months after she says her daughter was plied with alcohol, raped, then dumped on the family's front porch. She said her daughter's 13-year-old friend was raped by another boy the same evening.
"I think it's really good that we have a chance to have someone listen objectively," Coleman said Thursday. "That brings a lot of healing in itself."
Rice insists the initial investigation collapsed after the Colemans became uncooperative with investigators — something Coleman has denied.
Anchored by Northwest Missouri State University, Maryville may be best known as a football town, illustrated by the giant "bearcat" paw prints painted on Fourth Street and leading the way to the university's football stadium. Signs in the windows of local shops and bars support the Bearcats, whose annual game against rival Pittsburg State University is so big it's played at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City and dubbed the Fall Classic.
Since the Star's story was published, the town has been deluged with negative reactions, most of it coming from people on social media who have condemned the town for seemingly abandoning sexual assault victims. The case now is the talk of the town, and locals are anxious for a resolution.
"I have some friends who get together, but since this has been going on, they have to sit and argue their opinions," said Kyle Ponder, a 22-year-old lifelong Maryville resident. "This is splitting the town in two."
Few have disputed the central facts of the case. Daisy Coleman was 14 on the night in January 2012 she and 13-year-old friend drank alcohol they stashed in a closet, sneaked out of the Colemans' Maryville home and met with three boys, including two 17-year-olds.
Daisy's mother says one of the older boys sexually assaulted her daughter while the girl was passed out, while the 15-year-old boy forced the 13-year-old to have sex in a different room. The second 17-year-old was accused of recording the incident involving Daisy on his cellphone.
The two older boys were initially charged as adults with felonies, while the younger boy's case was handled in the juvenile system. Months later, Rice dropped all the charges against the older boys, saying the victims had invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The boys have insisted the sex act involving Daisy Coleman was consensual.
Authorities say the cellphone video had been deleted and investigators at the regional forensics lab in Kansas City could not recover it from the cellphone.
The Associated Press does not generally name victims of sexual assault but is naming the Colemans because they have been granting public interviews about the case. The AP is not naming the accused boys because there are no active charges against them.
Rice says he's asking for a special prosecutor only because media stories have questioned the integrity of the county's justice system. He stands by claims that the case fell apart only after the Colemans and the other girl refused to answer questions.
A special prosecutor could seek to interview the original prosecutor as a witness in the case but would conduct an entirely separate investigation. A special prosecutor would investigate if there's been a crime and would have the authority to bring charges, said Reuben, the professor at the University of Missouri.
Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd said special prosecutors are used often in Missouri. Zahnd, who has asked for special prosecutors and has also served as a special prosecutor, said the designation in Nodaway County could be given to any other lawyer in the state, including another county prosecutor or someone from the Missouri Attorney General's Office.
About a block off of Maryville's town square, Fred Robertson was cutting hair Thursday at his barbershop when the case came up. Robertson said it's sad that the town has been caught up in the media spotlight for something most people had nothing to do with.
"You can work all your life to have something good, and something like this can tear it up in a short time," he said. "There are no winners."
Maria Sudekum contributed to this report from Kansas City, Mo.