On a bitter cold January day in 2014, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker met a crowd of cameras, microphones and shouting reporters on the steps of the Nodaway County Courthouse in Maryville, Missouri.
The story had been raging for months about why a hometown football player had been charged with raping an underage girl – and why charges were mysteriously dropped – in a case that made international headlines.
Reporters asked Baker, repeatedly: Why didn’t she, as special prosecutor, bring sexual assault charges against the football player, Matthew Barnett? Baker stayed calm as she answered, repeatedly: There was insufficient evidence to bring charges against Barnett.
"So in this case — always, every case — it boils down to the evidence," Baker said. "But that’s what this case boiled down to: the evidence."
That’s exactly what Baker said she’ll do now that she’s been named special prosecutor in the invasion of privacy case against Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens. A St. Louis judge on Monday appointed Baker after St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner stepped down from the case.
“We do not know what the result of the review will be,” Baker wrote in a news release late Monday. “But let me stress that this review will be based solely on the evidence. Politics, affiliations or other matters beyond the evidence will not play a role.”
Still, Baker is known for fairness and attentiveness to victims. Her solomonic process in the Maryville case led to Barnett pleading guilty to a misdemeanor count of child endangerment; he also paid a fine and agreed to a stringent set of conditions, including apologizing to Daisy Coleman, his then 14-year-old victim.
And Baker has earned respect from her opponents in high-profile cases.
“I believe she listens attentively to all sides and views the evidence objectively and tries to get to a fair position,” said J.R. Hobbs, a Kansas City criminal defense attorney who went up against Baker in the Maryville case and a case in which Baker charged Bishop Robert Finn and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph for failing to report alleged child abuse by a Catholic priest.
Greitens’ attorneys said they were pleased that Gardner is no longer involved in the case that accuses him of taking a photo of a semi-nude woman without her consent. Jack Garvey, who represents Greitens, said Tuesday that once Peters looks at the evidence, he’s confident she’ll find no crime occurred.
“We’re very confident there will be no more charges,” Garvey said.
Greitens is also facing a charge of computer data tampering, linked to his use of a fundraising list from The Mission Continues, a charity he helped found before he was elected. That case has been continued until July 2.
After Baker was appointed on Monday, many observers dismissed suggestions that, as a leading Jackson County Democrat and protégé of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, Baker would play politics with the Republican governor.
Kristi Holsinger, chair of the University of Missouri Criminal Justice Department, said she and Baker recently served on the committee to select the interim Jackson County sheriff when Mike Sharp resigned. Baker is a good choice for this job, Holsinger said.
“I really saw her in the role of an elected official who interacts professionally within this political environment she’s in,” Holsinger said. “I think she has a real track record of looking at the facts and making decisions and not focusing on political ideology.”
At that Maryville press conference in 2014, Baker was also resolute about not using Coleman’s name, although reporters were doing so. Coleman and her family went public with their case in 2013 with KCUR, after they felt they hadn't received fair treatment by Nodaway County officials.
Baker said her first concern was the "very, very young victim," who she hoped would soon reclaim her anonymity.
“At the very heart of this case is this very young girl," Baker said, "and she has been at the heart of my concern and she has been at the heart of this investigation throughout the case.”
St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rasenbaum contributed to this report.
Peggy Lowe is an investigative reporter at KCUR. She’s on Twitter at @peggyllowe.