PINEVILLE, Mo. — A Newton County judge dismissed a defendant's child molestation charge in midtrial Tuesday when the victim's testimony failed to include the legal elements required to substantiate the charge.
David T. Bennett, 39, of rural Stark City, was being tried on a charge of first-degree child molestation of a 10-year-old girl on Aug. 1, 2017. The trial of the Newton County case had been moved to Pineville in McDonald County on a change of venue, and jurors were selected and sworn in Monday to hear testimony starting on Tuesday.
The first witness called by the state was the girl, who is now 12 years old.
Assistant Prosecutor Kathleen Miller said the girl was unable to recall some of the details she had provided investigators in the case two years ago. Among the details she could not recall were several of the elements needed to provide a basis for the charge, according to Miller. She said any other witnesses the state might have called would not have been able to provide the information known only by the girl.
Public defender Charles Oppelt cross-examined the girl briefly after the prosecution's direct examination before Assistant Prosecutor James Colston requested a recess. Circuit Judge Kevin Selby granted the request and sent jurors out of the court room while attorneys discussed with the judge how the court should proceed.
Because jurors had been sworn in, double jeopardy attached, and the judge decided that he needed to dismiss the case with prejudice, meaning the state can no longer seek to prosecute Bennett in connection with the act he was charged with committing on the date in question.
Tuesday's setback was not the first the Newton County prosecutor's office has faced in the case.
The girl first disclosed the abuse to her school principal, and a call was placed to the state's child abuse hotline. The girl was interviewed at the Children's Center in Joplin, and the Newton County Sheriff's Department's investigation led initially to charges of first-degree statutory rape and third-degree child molestation.
The defendant waived a preliminary hearing on those charges in April 2018 and was ordered to stand trial. But the case was remanded back to the associate level of the court in December and the charges refiled as a single count of first-degree child molestation. The defendant was ordered to stand trial on that count after a preliminary hearing Feb. 25.