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Girls testify against North Shore school bus driver in abuse trial

Jimmy Jerome James

Defendant Jimmy Jerome James violated a sacred trust "when he drove his bus over the innocence of children," St. Louis County prosecutor Nathaniel Stumme told jurors Thursday.

Two girls, ages 8 and 12, then took the witness stand in the criminal sexual conduct trial of the North Shore Community School bus driver. The girls testified that James touched them in inappropriate ways inside and outside their clothing and that they didn't like it because it made them uncomfortable or sad.

Defense attorney Joanna Wiegert told jurors that James has been married for 42 years, is a respected member of his community and a former fire department chief. She said he treated the kids on the bus like they were his grandchildren. She said that one girl on the bus saw James reach around a girl's waist, didn't like it, and started a snowball rolling that "got bigger and bigger until it got out of control ... and created an ugly mess."

Wiegert told jurors that one older girl on the bus asked leading questions of the younger girls by saying "Did this happen? Did this happen? Did this happen?" Another girl took notes and that's basically how the case was created against her client, the defense attorney said.

Stumme said that the kids aren't exaggerating. If anything they are minimizing what happened, he said.

It will be up to jurors to find the truth. James, 63, of Two Harbors, is standing trial in St. Louis County District Court charged with five counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct for allegedly molesting five North Shore Community School students between December 2009 and April 2010.

Stumme began his opening statement by telling jurors: "The children. The children. The children. The children are going to tell you that Mr. James is guilty of five counts of criminal sexual conduct in the second degree.''

Stumme said there won't be any adult witnesses to say they saw James commit a crime. Jurors are going to have to rely on the credibility of children, he said.

Parents of the children reported the alleged abuse to North Shore Community School Director Susan Rose, who as a mandated reporter reported it to law enforcement. The case was investigated by St. Louis County Sheriff's Office Investigator Steve Borchers and charges were brought after the alleged victims were interviewed at First Witness Child Abuse Resource Center.

Wiegert told jurors that her client would reach over and hold the kids so they wouldn't fall in the well steps of the bus. He didn't sexually assault them. She said he brought them treats for the holidays. "Once in a while a kid needed a hug and he would do that," she said.

Despite the adage that lawyers don't ask questions of witnesses when they don't already know the answers, Stumme told jurors that he didn't know exactly what the kids were going to say. But he said none of them would say James had to hold on to them to keep them from falling in the bus.

James allegedly put himself in a position to have contact with the children by creating a list for them to sign if they wanted to stand next to him and open the bus door. The two girls testified that they were touched inappropriately when it was their turn to open the door.

The 12-year-old girl said she was too embarrassed to say or show where on her body James allegedly touched her. An 11-year-old boy testified that he saw James touch his sister on the bus in a way that made him uncomfortable, but he was unable to relate exactly what he saw.

Judge David Johnson attempted to put the nervous children at ease before the attorneys questioned them. The judge asked the kids about their birthdays and what grade they were in at school before he turned them over to the attorneys, who were gentle in their questioning. None of the three children cried during their testimony.

The trial resumes at 8:30 a.m. today in St. Louis County District Court in Duluth.