Jury acquits man on charges of sexual battery on children

A 24-year-old Panama City man, on trial last week for sexual battery offenses against two youth that could have put him behind bars for life, has been acquitted of all charges.

The four-man, two woman took just under two hours Friday morning to find Brandon Austin James not guilty of two counts of sexual battery on a child under age 12 which, under Florida law, is considered a capital offense.

The jury could have found James guilty of lesser offenses of lewd and lascivious battery on a child under age 12, or of battery, but declined to do so.

The charges date back to James’ arrest in Nov. 2018, after he was alleged to have committed these offenses against two Carrabelle youth between May 2017 and Feb. 2018.

During their deliberations, which followed two days of trial, the jury asked to view privately “so we can talk openly with each other” a video of the youths’ testimony with the Child Protection Team which had been shown during the trial. 

Circuit Judge Jonathan Sjostrom responded that the video could be watched again, but only in open court. The jurors responded that they no longer needed to see the video.

The jurors had also asked the judge why James’ brother was not there to testify, and why the father of the alleged victims had not testified. The childrens’ mother had testified.

Sjostrom responded that he could not answer the questions since “they call for information that is not in evidence.

“Your decision must be based only on evidence presented in the trial and the law that I have given you,” the judge said.

After being arrested on a bench warrant in Nov. 2018, James was held without bond until June 2021, when Sjostrom granted him release with an ankle monitor and $5,000 bail.

During his period of incarceration, James had written Sjostrom’s predecessor, Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, urging that he be granted bond.

“I have a life to get back to,” he wrote. “I have a family that loves me. I don’t do drugs. I always treat everyone with the utmost respect. Your Honor, I do not feel I deserve these conditions.”

Sometime before May 2021, State Attorney Jack Campbell’s office had offered James a plea agreement of 20 years in prison, and a lifetime of probation, which the defendant rejected.

Earlier last month, Michael McNamara, James’ public defender, filed a motion asking the court to grant sanctions against the state for violating rules of discovery. These violations, the defense alleged, had taken place over a stretch of at least 20 months, and pertained to reports filed by the interviewer for the Child Protection Team.

Sjostrom denied the motion, but left open the right of the defense to refile the motion in the days before the trial. The judge also allowed the videotaped interview by the Child Protection Team to be admitted into court.

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