On stereotyping and skepticism in the Maryville, Missouri, rape cases

October 17, 2013 – 1:20 pm by John

Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports wrote an excellent article about the emotions and passions that have erupted in response to the "Nightmare in Maryville". One of Wetzel's main points is that we shouldn't let our emotions get carried away and lead us to incorrect conclusions and rash judgments, such as the conclusion that Nodaway County prosecutor Robert Rice dropped the charges against two boys because of who their families are—specifically, Matthew Barnett, whose grandfather was a longtime politician from Maryville. Reading his article, I felt like he could have been talking about me, as well as thousands of other concerned citizens and amateur blaggers, many of whom tend to take an issue—or one small aspect of an issue—and run with it, drawing conclusions and leveling condemnations according to their pre-established worldviews.

I think I do that a lot less than I used to, because I have made a conscious effort to sound less like an amateur basement-dweller shouting from his blagging chair and more like someone who is worth reading or at least not dismissing outright. The main three ways in which I try to achieve this are backing up all my fact-based claims with sources (links), backing up most of my opinions and conclusions with fact or sound logic (such as economic theory), and making concessions where they are due (instead of glossing over points that might detract from my argument or trying to explain them away somehow). I don't know where my previous post about the Nightmare in Maryville falls on the spectrum between amateur outrage-blagging and thoughtful, journalistic consideration (which, lamentably, often amounts to drawing no conclusions and taking no side at all), but I'm pretty sure it's not too close to either end.

In that vein, I wanted to respond to the aforementioned point of Wetzel's, specifically this passage from his article:

The obvious and first reaction here is one of anger. A young girl taken advantage of, raped, discarded in the frost grass by callous older boys, who because of their athletic ability and family connections are protected by the powers that be in this small backward town.

That may be a true version, although to make that immediate conclusion is to engage in stereotyping. It is to assume that in Maryville no one cares about sexual assault or young girls. It is to conclude that judgments have been blinded by loyalty to a local powerhouse high school football team. It is to presume the possibility of some political muscle – Barnett's grandfather is a former state representative –– trying to make this go away and a prosecutor bending to it.

Those are huge leaps to make here. At least at this point with what is currently known.

He is slightly off base here. It is technically stereotyping to assume that tribalism, blind loyalty, political power, and good-ol'-boy connections, not to mention backwardness and barbarism, are what led to some townspeople's reactions and to prosecutor Robert Rice dropping the charges against rapist Matthew Barnett and iPhone recorder Jordan Zech. But the good thing about stereotypes is that they're usually true. Especially about the government and other powerful, well-connected people. (Also, I don't know how Wetzel could conclude that our condemnation of some townspeople's reactions was off base; why else would they be sticking up for obviously horrible people and blaming the victims? How is it stereotyping if we only condemn the ones who are worthy of condemnation? I haven't read any column or blag post that condemns the entire town of Maryville, only the despicable people.)

Anyway, the assumption that Robert Rice is a corrupt crony who would rather commit the crime of dropping a case for what amounts to personal reasons than, y'know, do his job, is backed by a long, detailed history of such cronyism in the United States and across the world. Sometimes prosecutors, judges, juries, and the law enforcement/judicial system in general do their job right. Take the conviction of Kwame Kilpatrick and the conviction of Steubenville, Ohio, rapists Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond. But only part of the law enforcement/judicial system seems to have done its job right in the Maryville rape cases. This is not some wild, unsubstantiated assumption based on my desire to find fault in every government employee and my instinctual desire to defend the seemingly weak against the seemingly strong. It is based on Maryville Sheriff Darren White's certainty that two rapes, in addition to other crimes, had occurred and that the ample evidence pointed entirely to that conclusion. It is also based on the already-realized conviction of the 15-year-old rapist of the 13-year-old girl. What did he do that was so much worse than Matthew Barnett? (Was it based entirely on age?)

So it is not just anger and passion that lead people to conclude that something is amiss in the Nodaway County judicial system. It is the evidence, as presented by Sheriff White, the two girls, their families, and—oh, by the way—Matthew Barnett and Jordan Zech themselves, who admitted to everything they had done but claimed the rape was consensual.

A key point is that prosecutor Rice dropped all charges against Barnett and Zech, not just the rape charge, which depends on whether the sex was consensual, i.e., whether the girl was coherent and capable of consent at that point. Everything I've read indicates that no other facts of the case are in dispute, even by the rapists and their conspirators. Why would the slam-dunk charges (the iPhone recording and leaving the girl in sub-freezing weather) be dropped? It isn't a problem of evidence, testimony, or any other legal/procedural snag. Therefore, it is not a "huge leap" to conclude cronyism and ethical violations.

Another, minor point of Wetzel's that I dispute is that we Rice-bashers assume that Barnett's grandfather must have contacted Rice and urged him to drop the charges. Both Rice and the former politician deny that, and they might be telling the truth. My point is that a specific urging or communication needn't have taken place regarding this particular case or under any other circumstances, at any time. Rice might just want to protect a politically powerful family and another longstanding, popular Maryville family, because that's the way things are done or that's the way he wants to do them in this case. He might just be operating the only way he knows how: to protect the powerful and well connected at the expense of the weak and not well connected. That was half the point of my first post about this case.

Finally, regarding Wetzel's overall point that we shouldn't rush to judgment or jump to conclusions: It is rarely wrong to take a default stance against the government. It is rarely unwise to make a default assumption of corruption, cronyism, or incompetence in government employees and government offices. As I wrote recently about the NSA, it has repeatedly, invariably proven incorrect and unwise to assume the NSA always follows the law, doesn't violate people's privacy, doesn't violate the Constitution, does nothing harmful or unjust with its data, only collects a limited amount or a limited type of data, only focuses its vast efforts on legitimate counterterrorism, and is honest and forthright with Congress and the American people. Many civil libertarians and other fans of Greenwald and Gellman assumed the worst about the NSA early on in their Snowden leak publication process, before a lot of facts were made known. It turns out we were right to assume the NSA was far worse than we knew. Taking this type of default position about the Steubenville case would have been wrong, but the Maryville case is different and I think we're right. If we ever learn the whole truth, I think our assumptions will be vindicated.

So it is not a "huge leap" to assume the prosecutor dropped the charges because of cronyism. In this case, given the evidence published by the Kansas City Star, the quotes from Sheriff White, the dropping of all charges and not just the rape charge, and the testimony of the girls, their mothers, and the boys themselves (not to mention the conviction of the 15-year-old rapist!), it is a huge leap to take Robert Rice at his word and assume he was acting ethically and within the law. Giving that benefit of the doubt to Robert Rice or any other person in power is the wrong default position to take. You might retort that no one should have any "default" position but rather should consider each situation separately based on the facts. That's wise too, but note that being skeptical of all sides and making no assumptions is also a default position, or at least a default strategy. My point is that when the State or any other person(s) in a position of power is involved, the best default position is to assume they have somehow wronged the weaker and less connected party. In addition to being correct the vast majority of the time, this default assumption reinforces a distrust of government power and often leads to the discovery of more and deeper problems than the initial facts indicated, both of which are good and necessary to a healthy, free society.

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