By Jeff Lehr
In the end, jurors could not unanimously lend credence to more than one of James A. Terry’s four young accusers.
After three hours of deliberation, a jury of nine women and three men returned split verdicts Friday at the conclusion of the 64-year-old Terry’s trial in Jasper County Circuit Court in Joplin. They convicted the Webb City man of a single count of first-degree child molestation while acquitting him of two more counts of the same offense and a single count of attempted statutory sodomy.
Three girls, ages 9, 12 and 14, testified at the trial that Terry molested them on multiple occasions between 2006 and 2008 when they ranged in age from 3 to 9 years old. Also, a 21-year-old woman took the witness stand to describe how Terry tried to molest her in a game room of their church when she was about 11.
The jury was willing to convict Terry with respect to the 14-year-old girl’s accusation but not the others. The verdicts leave the defendant facing the prospect of five to 15 years in prison. Circuit Judge Gayle Crane set his sentencing hearing for April 1.
The grandfather of the 9-year-old girl in the case said as he was leaving the courts building after the reading of the verdicts that her family was disappointed.
“We felt like our granddaughter has gone through pure hell for six years now,” he said. “She’s done everything expected of her and more, and a jury of her peers let her down.”
The trial was polarizing and emotionally difficult for all involved. The families of the alleged victims sat on one side of the courtroom, with Terry’s family and supporters on the other.
The 14-year-old girl burst into tears Thursday under cross-examination by defense attorney William Fleischaker. At another point, the young woman who testified against the defendant left the courtroom distraught with a turn of the argument being made by the defense.
Fisher asked jurors during closing arguments if they thought getting up and testifying against Terry had been fun or exciting for any of his accusers. She asked them to recall their demeanors as they testified, “the strength of conviction” the 12-year-old girl had displayed, and the embarrassment the young woman had shown in recounting a secret she acknowledged that she had kept for the better part of seven or eight years before finally telling others, and then only gradually.
“The manner of each girl supports their credibility,” Fisher argued.
She pointed out that the defense offered no motive for four alleged victims to come forward, more or less independently, with remarkably similar accusations of perverse behavior on the part of the defendant. She also emphasized how Terry’s testimony corroborated numerous details of the girls’ accounts.
“The defense agrees with everything the girls say happened right up to the point where it gets him in trouble,” Fisher told the jury.
Fleischaker countered with a story about the evolution of his son’s memory of a laughable moment from childhood involving his own parenting. The point of the story was that his son’s memory of the incident had not improved over time.
“When children can’t remember everything, the holes get filled in with imagination,” he said.
The defense attorney told the jury that he thinks the children in his client’s case actually believe they are telling the truth. The length of time it took for their allegations to come to light suggests that they are more likely distortions of what actually happened, he said.
What the girls remember, or think happened, doesn’t make sense, Fleischaker said. For instance, he pointed out how “the cave” beneath the Praying Hands, where the youngest girl said she was molested, did not seem suited for that purpose since it was covered with jagged rocks and offered no place to sit or get comfortable with a victim, he said.
Fleischaker also emphasized how Terry has two daughters of his own and how his lifelong enjoyment of children should not be turned into something sinister.
“If wanting to spend time with children is evidence of being a child molester, then God help us all,” he told the jury.