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Jury declares Forde ‘not guilty’ on six charges of sexual battery

NATCHEZ — An Adams County jury has declared James Wesley Forde “not guilty” of all six charges of sexual battery.

Forde, 44, was on trial in connection to an alleged consensual sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy between May 2010 and March 2011. The allegations against him surfaced last year after the victim entered a treatment center for depression, alcohol and drug abuse and told a counselor there he had been in a relationship with Forde.

Several times throughout the trial as details were revealed, Judge Forrest “Al” Johnson stated, “We are well beyond any modesty now.” For Forde, that took a very real dimension as he was forced lift his shirt and lower the front of his pants to show the jury a large scar from an appendectomy. The victim had stated in his testimony that he did not remember Forde having any scars, tattoos or notable marks.

The scar, which was visible across the courtroom, was 10 inches long and ran from his belly button to below his waistline.

Before Forde revealed the scar, defense attorney Kevin Colbert asked if it someone who had been physically intimate would have remembered it.

“If you and I were in the shower together, would it be visible?” Colbert said. “If I was performing oral sex on you, would it be visible?”

While on the stand, Forde repeatedly denied having had sex with the victim or giving the teen alcohol. Instead, he said the victim stalked him, constantly sent him text messages and left him notes written on church bulletins.

One of Forde’s acquaintances, John Farmer, testified he saw the victim hiding outside Farmer’s residence one morning, and that later he received a text message that read “I know where you live.” Farmer said he knew the victim through family connections, but that the teen had gotten his phone number from a business card he had left at Forde’s shop, Farmer said.

“James Forde warned me that the kid was troubled and that I needed to not treat him like a family friend,” Farmer said. “(After receiving the text message) was when I realized James Forde was right that the kid had issues, that I should not be treating him like a family friend, that I should be scared.”

Forde said the reason he exchanged text messages with the victim from June to August 2010 with regularity was because the victim’s number was saved on his phone under the name of a young woman Forde considered a friend.

“I would receive texts constantly, and they would show as (the woman) when it was in fact (the victim) himself,” Forde said.

After Aug. 22 — when Forde says he found this out — phone records indicate that Forde’s return text messages to the victim’s phone plummeted. When he did return text messages, Forde said, it was asking the victim to leave him alone or sending him a phone number to a suicide hotline because the content of the teen’s texts indicated depression and suicidal thoughts. He said at one time he felt compassion for the teen.

“Why would I have sent him some kind of dirty, graphic text message where his mama or daddy could pick up this phone, or one of his classmates could see it?” Forde said.

The defendant told the court that in December 2010, the victim visited his store, saying he wanted Forde to be his boyfriend.

“I said, ‘I just really need you to leave my store,’ and he said that he loved me,” Forde said. “I said, ‘Please leave, please leave my store.’”

When the victim didn’t leave the store, Forde said he said he would tell the victim’s parents about the text messages and notes.

“He was just shaking and trembling he said to me, ‘Don’t tell my parents about this, they are going to kill me. You don’t understand how crazy my parents are,’” Forde said. “He told me, ‘If you tell them, I will tell them you raped me.’”

Thomas Sandifer, a long-time friend of Forde, testified he overheard the conversation in December.

Forde said even though he felt harassed, he never told the police or even his girlfriend, Ginger Hyland. That omission was a question prosecutors asked the jury to consider in their closing arguments.

“James Forde never told the love of his life that (the victim) was harassing him, and he never showed her those church bulletins — that is where your common sense comes in,” Assistant District Attorney Debra Blackwell said.

Defense attorney Rusty Jenkins countered that Forde was not required to report such things.

“He is not obligated to call the sheriff; if he can stand it, he can stand it,” Jenkins said.

Hyland also took the stand, testifying that she and Forde were in a long-term romantic relationship and that they were rarely apart. She told of how, after Forde was arrested, she was able to reconstruct nearly every day of the 11-month period in which he is implicated through meticulous record keeping, looking at receipts, invoices from the businesses she and Forde owned, personal calendars and social event fliers. Forde testified that the couple even consulted their Netflix viewing history to log when they had watched a movie.

Speaking of the victim’s phone records for that time period, which had been entered into evidence, Hyland said, “I have been through each page in this stack (of records) — and there are 1,100 pages — at least four times.”

Those phone records were subject to much scrutiny during Saturday’s testimony, with prosecutors focusing on a 52-minute gap between text messages on one of the days for a count for which Forde was indicted.

“Just because you don’t have a text for 50 minutes, does that mean that you’re having sex?” Colbert asked.

In addition to testifying that Forde was with her on days when some of the counts against him were alleged to have happened, Hyland said after Forde was arrested she searched areas where law enforcement did not in search for items that were not located.

“I have always had a great respect for the law, and if officers were going to come in and arrest him I needed to know if their reasons were legitimate and if James was the man I thought he was, so I searched,” she said.

Hyland said she did not find any evidence.

The defense has maintained that while the victim is certainly gay, Forde is a heterosexual and has never had homosexual sex. One male witness brought in by the prosecution Saturday testified that Forde propositioned him once by making a number of crude jokes and then handing him a card that read, “The ball is in your court.”

Layne Taylor, who testified Friday that he believes Forde is gay, told the court Saturday the defendant had told him about incidents of having sex with a man. Taylor also said one evening he arrived home to find Forde sitting on his porch, and when he asked him what he was doing Forde had told Taylor that it was a shame he had showed up late because he had missed the fun.

“He held up his cell phone and showed me a picture of (male genitalia), and he told me it was his,” Taylor said.

Colbert characterized much of the trial as “mudslinging.”

“They are trying to paint James Forde as gay,” Colbert said. “He says he is not, and he has been living with a woman for years. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is there are six counts of sexual battery (on trial) today.”

Two other witnesses — Danielle Thornton and Matt Fontenot — testified about the victim being drunk at the Natchez Little Theatre on the night one of the counts for which Forde has been indicted reportedly happened.

Sandifer also testified that Forde spent the evening of one of the nights for which Forde is accused with him.

When District Attorney Ronnie Harper asked Sandifer how he was able to remember a specific evening two-and-a-half years ago in great detail, Sandifer replied that it was because he wasn’t able to get around easily.

“We got to spend a day just palling around,” Sandifer said. “Usually I just spent the day around the house.”

During closing arguments, Jenkins questioned why little physical evidence was collected during the investigation.

“Have we got one hair, have we got any semen, have we got anything?” Jenkins said. “I don’t have a crime lab, but (law enforcement officers) do, and the problem is because didn’t anybody check (for physical evidence). You’re going to put a man in the penitentiary, and you don’t even bother to go take a fingerprint?”

Harper responded that such a collection wasn’t possible by the time the investigation of the crime began in March 2012.

“You want DNA a year later in a pickup truck?” Harper said. “I know you see on TV where they make it look like you can wave your hand in the air and get it, but I can tell you it ain’t that easy. And fingerprints? It’s hard to get fingerprints the next day.”

Addressing the jury, Jenkins said the trial was sometimes tedious, sometimes racy and sometimes gross. The attorney characterized it as one of the most distasteful experiences of his life.

Blackwell said she hates trying cases like this.

“After four days of this, I am sure you have realized that sex abuse cases are the hardest cases we handle,” she said. “Murder cases are easier than this, and you know why? The victim is dead.”

Following the verdict, Johnson said the trial was a very tough one and was one of the hardest-fought he has ever seen, characterizing it as being “like a war.”

The judge said a declaration of non-guilt was not the same as a declaration of innocence.

“Ultimately, only two people know what really happened, and that’s the defendant and (the victim),” Johnson said. “There are no winners in cases like these.”

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