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Defense requests, denied mistrial in Forde case

NATCHEZ — Defense attorneys for James Wesley Forde asked for a mistrial Friday after one of the prosecution witnesses said he believed Forde was gay.

Forde, 43, is on trial for six counts of sexual battery for what is an alleged consensual sexual relationship with a teenage boy who was 15 at the time of the relationship, which prosecutors say happened from May 2010 to the Spring of 2011.

The motion for a mistrial — which was ultimately denied — came after Natchez Little Theatre Executive Director Layne Taylor testified that on one occasion he had entered a dressing room to find the victim changing costumes during a production of “The King and I” while Forde sat in the opposite corner of the room near a bottle of wine and multiple glasses on an improvised table.

Taylor said it’s not uncommon for cast members to change costumes around each other, but after the victim left the room, he asked Forde what he was doing.

“I asked James what he was doing in there, and he said it was his dressing room, and I said, ‘What were you doing in this dressing room with (the victim?)’” Taylor said. “It shocked me, but I don’t know why it shocked me. I saw the wine and I said, ‘What are you doing up here drinking in front of a minor?’ We don’t allow alcohol to be consumed by the cast or any form of drugs.”

Taylor said his response to the scene was more of a gut reaction than to any actual action taken by Forde.

“I watched (the victim) grow up at the theater, and I realized he probably needed protection from some people,” Taylor said. “I knew (him) well enough to know he had had issues at school being bullied and had felt somewhat ostracized or verbally bullied because he was different or unique. I know from life experience that children like that can be victims.

“I never thought James would victimize someone, but I knew from conversations we had had that James was gay — not that that has anything to do with being a pedophile — but that was how I felt.”

Taylor said when he expressed his concern about Forde being alone in the dressing room with the victim, Forde assured him the dressing room was being shared by several other people. Taylor also said he had no personal knowledge of any inappropriate contact between Forde and the victim.

But Taylor’s comment about Forde being gay drew the defense counsel’s ire — they maintain Forde is in a long-term heterosexual relationship — because they said the prosecution had told them they would not be bringing in witnesses to discuss whether or not Forde is homosexual.

Judge Forrest “Al” Johnson denied the objection in part because the prosecution did not directly elicit the information, but the information was freely given by a witness explaining an answer to a question about why he was uncomfortable with Forde being alone in the room with the victim.

Taylor said the victim confided in him that he was the victim of bullying at school and at his church.

“I know from personal experience that (in certain churches) certain personality types that are perhaps a little more flamboyant are not appreciated,” Taylor said. “(The victim) did not enjoy going to church, especially to youth events, and if he was in a production I was directing he would beg me to have practices on Wednesday so he would not have to go (to church).”

But when defense attorney Rusty Jenkins asked Taylor if the victim had ever confided in him about his sexuality, Taylor said the issue only came up once, when another boy told others he and the victim had sex at the Natchez Little Theatre. Taylor said he did not believe the victim had sex at NLT.

“I was unaware that (the victim) was sexual,” Taylor said. “He was a child.”

The boy who alleged he had sex with the victim later took the stand. The boy in question is now legally an adult but was a minor at the time of his alleged relationship with the victim.

The now 19-year-old male described in detail a number of sexual encounters and secret forms of communication he said he had with the victim during a period of time that overlapped with the victim’s alleged relationship with Forde. He said on Valentine’s Day 2010 the victim took him to a local restaurant.

“He took me there to tell me he was done with me and that he was cheating on me with numerous people,” the 19-year-old said. “We would fight, and then we would get back together.”

The teen witness also said the victim told him that the victim’s father would not pay for driver’s education lessons or give him a car if he found out about their relationship. When the father found out about the incident at NLT, the teen said, he confronted the boy.

“I remember (the victim’s father) telling me that his son was not gay and that I needed to quit lying about his son, and that if anything really did happen it was that I forced myself on him,” the teen said. “I hit him in the nose and I ran out. I was terrified that I was going to go to jail.”

The teen witness also alleged he was kicked out of NLT because the victim’s father was putting pressure on the theater’s board. When Assistant District Attorney Debra Blackwell asked him if he was aware Taylor had characterized him as a “pathological liar,” the teen said he believed it was because Taylor was threatened.

In his testimony, Taylor said the 19-year-old witness had been banned from NLT and would never be reinstated for problems he had caused.

The teenage witness said the victim never discussed Forde with him.

The victim’s mother also took the stand Friday, testifying about her son’s years of involvement at NLT, attitude and personality changes she observed in him starting in the summer of 2010 — when the alleged relationship with Forde reportedly began — and his eventual drug, alcohol and trauma treatment.

She has had to relocate to another state so her son can continue outpatient treatment at a clinic there, the mother said.

“It has been devastating for the family,” she said. “(My son) is getting better, but of course watching your son and brother succumb to drug and alcohol use while hurting so badly is painful for everybody.”

The mother’s testimony was sometimes tearful and sometimes angry, especially when she spoke of Forde, saying he “groomed” her son to prepare him for a sexual relationship.

The first time she met Forde, the mother said, he was sitting with her son on the stage at NLT showing him a brochure of his residence, The Towers. The mother said she felt Forde was trying to impress her son.

“When I walked in I felt uncomfortable because he was too close,” she said. “There is an appropriate distance between a man and a boy, and it wasn’t there. There was way too much animation in his expression for an adult and a child. (My son) looked infatuated.”

Later, she said, “(My son) actually came home and said, ‘Mama, James wants me to model for his store.’ That wearing nice clothes and feeling rich like James was (part of the grooming). It was very easy to see how he felt loved by Mr. Forde.”

The defense also called NLT board member Wade Heatherly, who also acts in NLT productions and who testified that he never saw wine or wine glasses in the dressing room Forde and the victim used, though he said he spent “very little time” in the dressing room.

Heatherly said at the cast party for “The King and I” he saw the victim drunk; Taylor also testified that the victim was drunk at the cast party and had to be sent home.

Jerry Jacobson, who formerly lived at the North Rankin Street address where some of the alleged sexual acts between Forde and the victim occurred, testified that he lived in the house starting Oct. 3, 2010, and that one time he found a note the victim left Forde on the porch. Forde had at one time lived at the Rankin Street residence.

The trial will continue today.

Johnson gave the jury the option of picking up the testimony on Saturday or waiting until Monday, and the jury decided to continue into the weekend.