FALLS CITY, Neb., Aug. 29 - On Sunday evening, Matthew Koso tipped three ounces of formula into his 5-day-old daughter's mouth, then hoisted her atop his shoulder in hope of a burp. On Tuesday morning, he is scheduled to be arraigned on charges for which the newborn is the state's prime piece of evidence.
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Chris Cummins for the New York Times
Matthew Koso, 22; his wife Crystal, 14; and their daughter, Samara. Mr. Koso faces an arraignment Tuesday on a charge of statutory rape.
Mr. Koso is 22. The baby's mother, Crystal, is 14. He is charged with statutory rape, even though they were wed with their parents' blessing in May, crossing into Kansas because their own state prohibits marriages of people under 17.
The Nebraska attorney general accuses Mr. Koso of being a pedophile; they say it is true love.
"We don't want grown men having sex with young girls," said Jon Bruning, the attorney general. "We make a lot of choices for our children: we don't allow them to vote; we don't allow them to drink; we don't allow them to drive cars; we don't allow them to serve in wars at age 13, whether they want to or not; and we don't allow them to have sex with grown men."
But Mr. Koso's mother, Peggy, said she and her husband of 25 years were proud that their son did not disappear like so many deadbeat dads.
"He's not always lived up to his responsibilities, but this time he will," Ms. Koso said. "He could have left, but he didn't. He said, 'Mom, I love Crystal; I love this child.' "
Outrage over the case has rippled through this town of 4,800 about 100 miles from both Omaha and Kansas City, and to two state capitals. The governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius, embarrassed by her state's status as one of the few allowing children as young as 12 to marry, has said she will propose a raise in the minimum age when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bruning's office has been deluged with letters, the vast majority angrily urging that he leave the couple alone. One, from a woman named Patricia, said, "I'm sure your time can be better spent putting away real criminals."
Studies show that one in five teenagers have sex before they turn 15, and about 150,000 babies are born each year to a minor parent. In Nebraska, there were 25 births to mothers under 15 in 2002, the latest year for which statistics are available. In Kansas, five girls under 15 were married in 2003, three in 2002 and six in 2001.
In Nebraska, as in many other states, intercourse between someone who is 19 and someone younger than 16 is classified as statutory rape. It is illegal here even if the couple is married at the time.
But experts said it was extremely rare for a man to be prosecuted for statutory rape when he has married his minor partner.
A judge in Syracuse last September delayed a one-and-a-half-to-three-year prison sentence until this summer so that a 38-year-old defendant could marry a pregnant 16-year-old; in Florida in 2001, charges were reduced to a misdemeanor when a 17-year-old married the 13-year-old girl expecting their second child, and he received six months' probation.
"It's odd that the state would be prosecuting someone who did not leave the girl pregnant and unwed," said Rigel C. Oliveri, a law professor at the University of Missouri who has studied laws on statutory rape since 1998. "I guess they're just trying to send a message to other men who are contemplating doing this type of thing."
Mr. Koso faces up to 50 years in prison, and Mr. Bruning said he was considering additional charges based on complaints that Mr. Koso had sex with other young girls in the past. Mr. Koso's lawyer would not allow him to discuss that, but his mother said he told her that he had dated only one other girl under 16 and that they did not have sex.
For now, Mr. Koso, out on $5,000 bond, sits in the basement of his parents' home, where the walls are papered with the pink-and-purple, heart-filled love notes that his wife, a ninth-grader, scribbled on notebook paper in class. A crib crammed next to the bed has Winnie the Pooh sheets to match the keychain dangling from her schoolgirl purse.
The couple named their 7-pound, 1-ounce baby girl, born Wednesday morning, Samara Ann Koso, after a character in the horror movie "The Ring."
As Mr. Koso changed Samara's diaper three times in 30 minutes on Sunday, Crystal worked on a homework assignment for her world history class.
"I couldn't be any happier than I am right now," Mr. Koso said, adding of Mr. Bruning: "He's a home wrecker. He's trying to rip a father away from a child, and rip a husband away from a wife."
Matthew and Crystal met when she was 8, and he played video games with her half-brother. Mr. Koso, who was in special education classes for attention deficit disorder and other learning problems, graduated from high school in 2001 and joined the Marine Corps, but left after four months on a medical discharge. When Crystal's mother had no car, Mr. Koso drove her to the doctor and the grocery store.
"He's always been friends with people that were younger," said Peggy Koso, recalling her son at age 5 or 6 passing hours with building blocks and racing cars with a neighbor of 3 or 4. "His own peers never accepted him."
The two became a couple, according to Crystal's "Happy Anniversary" drawing on the wall, on Sept. 17, 2003. She was 12 and he 20. Exactly a year later, Crystal's mother, Cecilia Guyer, who is divorced from her father, filed for a restraining order against Mr. Koso, writing of him: "He's too old for early teens. He needs to stay away."
Despite the court order, both mothers now say, Crystal continued to go to the Kosos' home after school and stay through supper, sleeping over in Mr. Koso's basement room on weekends. Ms. Koso said she spoke to her son about the risks of pregnancy and prison and made excuses to check on the couple frequently when they were alone. Ms. Guyer said that she asked Crystal why she seemed to be using fewer tampons, but that she denied being sexually active.
Then one afternoon when Ms. Guyer and her daughter were shopping at a second-hand store for a dress for an eighth grade dance, Ms. Guyer noticed that Crystal had stretch marks. The couple confessed, but said they were not interested in adoption. On May 3, after consulting with a lawyer, they were married in a judge's chambers 18 miles away in Hiawatha, Kan., both in jeans, she carrying pink carnations, he with a matching boutonniere.
The local police came the next day to question Crystal and her mother, but no charges were filed until Mr. Bruning's office, which frequently prosecutes crimes in rural counties, got involved in late July.
"This was not a close call," the attorney general said in an interview. "We weren't talking about a 19-year-old-and-one-day senior in high school and his 15-year-old-and-364-day sophomore girlfriend. We were talking about a grown man and a child."
Mr. Bruning said he was shocked that more than 80 percent of the 250 people - most from outside Nebraska - who had contacted his office opposed the prosecution. Similar sentiment abounds here in Falls City, where people say putting Mr. Koso in jail would most likely land his wife and child on welfare, an unnecessary double-burden for taxpayers.
"They are trying to make a right out of a wrong," Mardell Rehrs, 67, said of the couple on Monday morning. "Give them a chance."
Residents here said Mr. Koso was being unfairly singled out. One 1995 graduate of Falls City High said seven girls in his class of 60 had babies before graduation, including one who was pregnant, like Crystal, in the eighth grade.
Ron Prichard, who works at the railroad and has a 12-year-old daughter, said Matthew and Crystal would not be parents today "if her parents were being parents."
"Yeah, the kid did wrong, but the parents allowed it to happen," Mr. Prichard said.
Mr. Koso's mother spent the last three nights sleeping on the living room couch, next to the baby's bassinet, to handle the nightly feedings. She and Ms. Guyer, who each receive Supplemental Security Income for disabilities, say they will take care of Samara during the day, once Crystal returns to school after Labor Day.
The families hope that Mr. Koso is placed on probation instead of being sentenced to prison so he can keep his $9.27 an hour job loading trucks.
Maybe a year from now, the couple says, they will be able to afford their own place. Crystal, who is good at math, said that she had no interest in college, but that she would finish high school and perhaps become a nurse. They plan to have two more children.
"But later on," said Crystal, who says her favorite part of motherhood thus far is when Samara is asleep. "Much later on."
So... Check in guys. What's your opinion? I'm intending to play devils advocate all around.. we'll see how that works out. ;)