With numerous arguments and letters now in hand, a judge will weigh input before sentencing a convicted child molester who could face life in prison for his crimes.
In August a jury convicted James M. Fletcher, 35, of Lawrence, of five 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. Under sentencing guidelines, even though he has no other criminal history, Fletcher faces up to life in prison with no possibility of parole for at least 25 years, plus lifetime registration and supervision if he were to be paroled.
Fletcher’s sentencing hearing was Monday, but a ruling was delayed until Nov. 9.
Judge Peggy Kittel took under advisement a request from Fletcher’s attorneys to give him a lighter sentence than what the guidelines require.
Kittel said she wanted time to weigh her decision “due to the length of sentence Mr. Fletcher is facing.”
His situation is unusual, Kittel said.
“What makes this case so hard is that Mr. Fletcher has no criminal history, yet is facing a lifetime sentence,” Kittel said.
The numerous letters of support from family, friends, neighbors and co-workers are “impressive,” Kittel said. Fletcher’s co-workers lauded him as a capable electrical engineer, intelligent and even “brilliant,” she said.
“And yet a jury found him guilty of betraying the trust of (the victim),” the judge said. “…He stands convicted of something, really, ethically and morally wrong.”
More than three dozen people attended Monday’s hearing. That included the victim, who also testified at the trial, but most were supporters of Fletcher.
None spoke, and neither did Fletcher other than yes and no answers to the judge, with his head otherwise bowed. Fletcher, who has been jailed since his conviction, appeared in shackles and inmate clothing.
The judge did, through prosecutors, receive and read a letter from the victim with a picture that she drew, but the letter was not read aloud nor the picture displayed in court. The judge also referenced the many letters in Fletcher’s support that she received earlier.
Fletcher’s attorneys, Sarah Swain and Cooper Overstreet, emphasized his lack of criminal history, his strong support system — pointing to Fletcher’s wife, parents, relatives and friends in the audience — his model behavior while out on bond prior to his conviction and his proactivity in seeking counseling for what was described in trial as a sexual attraction to the teenage body type.
“That’s a very rare thing,” Swain said of seeking counseling. “These can only be positive steps, steps in the right direction.”
Swain also added that, prior to legislation known as Jessica’s Law, the crimes of which Fletcher was convicted would have carried a substantially lighter sentence. That law, in part, increased penalties for certain sex crimes against children.
Defense attorneys requested a total sentence for Fletcher of two and a half years, or 29 and a half months on each count, running concurrently.
Prosecutor Mark Simpson said the defense's arguments were not compelling enough to depart from sentencing guidelines.
In fact, Simpson said some of those same points made Fletcher’s crimes even worse.
“She trusted him,” Simpson said of the victim. “He was able to have access to her in a way that she could not have been more vulnerable.”
A psychological evaluation of Fletcher concluded that he would not be able to “groom” a child because he had autism, Simpson said, but that diagnoses only came when Fletcher was 34 and seemed to contradict descriptions of him in the numerous letters of support. The same analysis concluded that Fletcher intellectualized and rationalized behavior, limiting the ability of any treatment to be effective, Simpson said.
Simpson said the crimes occurred in a house under the same roof as several of Fletcher’s relatives, who at one point even suggested that his “cuddling” was inappropriate. Simpson said Fletcher orchestrated the abuse in part by trying to convince the girl she was only dreaming it.
“This was not one bad decision,” Simpson said. “This was ongoing — years of carefully planned abuse by the defendant.”
Prosecutors are requesting a sentence of life in prison for Fletcher. Simpson said that if Fletcher were paroled after 25 years, he would have served the equivalent of five years of prison for each count.
"That does not seem like an inappropriately long sentence to me," he said.
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. Charges indicate Fletcher molested the girl from December 2012 through January 2015, when the victim was 13.
The victim told the jury 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 awakened 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.
When asked by police why the girl would made such accusations, according to a police interview played at trial, Fletcher answered, “She probably dreamt it.”
The Douglas County Sheriff's Office has declined to release Fletcher's booking photo to the Journal-World.