The girl was about 11 at the time. She described instances when James Taylor, her step-father, would walk into the bedroom she shared with her sister in their Palm Coast home six years ago, try to touch her or rub his hands over her chest area, over her clothes for a few seconds, then scurry out the moment she’d stir or seem to wake up.
She claimed it happened “four or five times.” She never saw the face of the person touching her–the person she referred to as “somebody” or “they” in her testimony in court, but she was sure it was Taylor, because she knew his body build. And there was that time he’d walked into the bathroom as she was showering, proceeding to wash her with what she described as a “spongy,” in the same areas he favored. In that case, his identity was unmistakable.
Her sister, 13 at the time, slept next to her in the same bed. She claims he tried to touch her and she’d stir too, and he’d run out, though Taylor wasn’t on trial for anything to do with the older girl. But the two girls’ accounts echoed each other down to exact phrases, and the jury heard both girls. Juries generally don’t make distinctions between evidence regarding the charge being tried as opposed to evidence presented in attempts to show a pattern.
Taylor’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Regina Nunnally, called the two girls’ similar accounts “collaboration, not corroboration.” She argued to the jury that the girls had made up the story to hurt their step-father, whom they did not like, that they’d worked out the stories together ahead of time to get him out of their lives. “It worked,” Nunnally told the jury. “He gone.” (The girls’ grandfather kicked him out of the house after he found out that Taylor had been a convicted sex offender, a fact never revealed to the jury.)
Assistant State Prosecutor Melissa Clark said the accounts paralleled each other “because this is what he was doing.”
A jury late this afternoon agreed with Clark, seemingly with little hesitation. The jury of four women and two men deliberated just 35 minutes before finding James Taylor guilty of molesting the girl. Because she was under 12 at the time, the charge is a felony punishable by life in prison. Because Taylor is a convicted felon who was charged and found guilty of another felony within five years of being released from prison, “it has consequences on me with regard to what I can do or cannot do,” Circuit Judge Terence Perkins told Taylor about his sentence, which will be pronounced on Nov. 1.
Taylor, 41, will almost certainly be sentenced to life in prison–as he was after a jury convicted him on this same charge two and a half years ago, after his second trial on the charge. The first had ended in a mistrial. But he appealed the conviction and partially won: the conviction was overturned. The Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled that the judge in that trial–Dennis Craig–should not have allowed the testimony of the third and oldest sister, who claimed Taylor had once raped her when she, too, was 12. (Taylor was charged of rape in Gainesville for that incident, but the charge was dropped last October.) The oldest girl did not testify at trial this time. The court of appeals ordered a new trial.
It was for the most part a painful re-run of the earlier trial, minus some of the testimony that had provoked the successful appeal.
It took just two days, and seemed abbreviated, with fewer witnesses, shorter testimonies, less ardor all around. The two lawyers’ opening arguments were five minutes for the prosecution, six for the defense. When the lawyers discussed the trial’s timing last week with Perkins they foresaw it possibly going through Friday (with Thursday not counting, as Perkins is in Drug Court and would have used the rest of the day for a civil trial.) None of that proved necessary. Closing arguments started in mid-afternoon.
“You have to ask yourself why is James Taylor in their bedroom. These girls are 11 and 13 years old, they’ve been tucking themselves in bed for years,” Clark told the jury. “His behavior is not consistent with that of a parent checking on their child.” The defense had claimed that’s all it could have been. “This is happening in the middle of the night, he’s not saying one word to her, and as soon as she begins to move he high-tails it out of there because it was sexual in nature.”
The contradictions, the inconsistencies, the vague replies, the sometimes sharply different stories the victim told her Child Protection Team interviewer six years ago compared to the accounts she gave at trial–all that should be attributed to the passage of years, Clark told the jury.
Nunnally in response read from the dictionary. She read the definition of the word illogical, a definition she ascribed to the accounts of the girl and her sister, the state’s two chief witnesses. Not just the definition, but its endless synonyms: irrational, absurd, incorrect, inconsistent, unscientific, false, contradictory, untenable, unsound, preposterous, invalid, groundless, implausible, hollow, irrelevant, inconclusive, prejudiced… and on she went, capping it all with words not in the definition: “just plain wrong. ”
Taylor had almost bounded into the courtroom when a bailiff brought him back for the verdict. He flashed a big smile to the three or four members of his family behind him before sitting down. He seemed to have a good feeling. But he’d had a good feeling in April 2017, too, after Nunnally’s closing, when both he and she exuded the sort of body language that projected a triumph. The jury shocked them then. It would shock them again today, though Nunnally this time seemed less shocked by the outcome.
Taylor stood ramrod as the verdict was read, and as the jurors were polled. He showed no emotion, just looking at the jury and standing next to Nunnally. But as Perkins spoke his thanks to the jurors before dismissing them, Taylor, sitting down, kept shaking his head, looking at his mother and two sisters in the gallery and shaking his head, the disbelief as if coursing through him like an injection. He looked at a reporter and in the direction of the two girls and their family, too, and shook his head.
The girls are grown now: the youngest is 17, her middle sister, who is expecting a child, turned 18 today. The youngest immediately broke down in the arms of the victim’s advocate when the verdict was read.