Jury convicts Lawrence man of molesting girl for years; defendant faces possibility of life in prison

The Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th St.

A jury on Monday convicted a Lawrence man of multiple counts of aggravated indecent liberties with a child, for repeatedly fondling a girl over the course of more than two years, starting when she was 11.

More than 30 people — including the victim, who is now 16 — were in the courtroom Monday for closing arguments and the verdict in the trial of James M. Fletcher, 35, of Lawrence.

Fletcher was charged in Douglas County District Court in September 2015 with one count of aggravated indecent liberties with a child under 14, with four more counts added in May 2016. Fletcher allegedly molested the girl from December 2012 through January 2015, when the victim was 13.

Fletcher faces a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 25 years for each count of aggravated indecent liberties with a child, according to a news release from District Attorney Charles Branson’s office.

His sentencing date was set for Oct. 30.

The weeklong trial ended when the jury delivered its verdict about 4 p.m. Monday, after several hours of deliberation.

Fletcher bowed his head during the reading of the verdict, later removing his glasses and appearing to wipe his eyes.

Judge Peggy Kittel ordered Fletcher, who had been free on bond throughout the years-long court proceedings, to be taken into custody following the verdict. Kittel cited the serious nature of the crimes and “strong evidence” presented by the state before sheriff’s deputies handcuffed him and led him out of the courtroom.

The victim told the jury last week that numerous times when she stayed at Fletcher’s house in Lawrence, he fondled her bare breasts under her T-shirt at night.

She said sometimes she was awoken by the action but that she pretended to be asleep, and that afterward she felt “scared,” “confused” and initially passed off the encounters as dreams “to give myself a reason to not have to tell anybody.”

The girl said no one else saw the alleged molestation and that she never told anyone until February 2015, after a confrontation between Fletcher and her mother, where Fletcher told her mother he was sexually attracted to teens and worried he would develop an attraction to the girl.

In closing arguments Monday morning, prosecutor Mark Simpson leaned heavily on the girl’s testimony and corroborating evidence.

That included inappropriate photos Fletcher took of the girl and Fletcher’s repeated answers of “I don’t know” when questioned whether he touched the girl’s breasts on purpose, who lifted the girl’s shirt to expose her buttocks in the photos and whether his actions were sexually motivated.

“She doesn’t stand on her own in the case,” Simpson said. “There’s lots of evidence that shows what she said is accurate.”

Simpson also emphasized something Fletcher told police in a videotaped interview. Detectives asked Fletcher why the girl would say he molested her, to which Fletcher replied, “She probably dreamt it.”

Simpson said that when Fletcher gave that answer to police, no one had told him how the girl described the encounters.

“That’s how he’s hidden the abuse for years,” Simpson said.

Fletcher’s defense attorney, Sarah Swain, in her closing arguments largely attacked events that occurred prior to Fletcher’s police interview, alleging a scenario in which the girl’s mother coerced both her and Fletcher’s statements.

Swain said that before police were called, when Fletcher went to tell her he had an attraction to teens, the mother held a handgun to his head — which the mother, in her testimony, denied — to coerce him into saying things that weren’t true.

The mother “held James Fletcher at gunpoint until he sobbed uncontrollably, fell onto the floor of that living room, held his head, rocked back and forth in the fetal position,” Swain said.

Swain said Fletcher had an autism spectrum disorder and that the “signs of distress” he exhibited and the answers he gave police reflected that.

Swain also said the Lawrence and Overland Park police departments failed to investigate evidence that could have proven Fletcher did not molest the girl, including interviewing more people or gathering items of clothing that, if they had not been washed, might have contained traces of touch-DNA.

“The police in this case operated on confirmation bias,” Swain said. “They believed that James Fletcher had done something; they put their blinders on.”