TAMPA — After two families traded their pain, after Trevor Dooley called himself "a stupid old man" in a letter to the daughter of the man he killed, a judge tried to find some answer for the 72-year-old's fatal shooting of a neighbor in 2010 that has never made sense.
Summarizing the tragedy that spun out of an argument over a skateboarder on a Valrico community basketball court, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ashley Moody concluded, "All this could have been avoided if somebody had stopped and said, 'Let me introduce myself.' "
On Thursday, Moody sentenced Dooley — described by a psychologist as a stickler for rules, "a John Wayne type" — to eight years in prison for the manslaughter death of David James, 41.
As Dooley was led away in handcuffs, his attorney said he would file a request today for his release on bail while an appeal is made. He had been free on bail up to Thursday.
Moody acknowledged her struggle to impose a fair sentence in a case whose complexities inspired national debate. Dooley claimed immunity under Florida's "stand your ground" law, saying he feared being overpowered by the larger, younger man as they wrestled on the ground for Dooley's gun. When the judge rejected that, the defense turned to a self-defense argument.
James' family, including his daughter, Danielle, who was 8 when her father died in front of her, sought a 30-year sentence. Dooley's equally devastated family begged for leniency.
From the testimony she heard, including many stories of kindness to strangers and the raising of three children with advanced degrees, Moody said Dooley appeared to be "decent and generous, a good man who made a very bad decision." To believe the shooting was about a skateboarder, she said, was an oversimplification.
James was playing hoops with Danielle that Sunday afternoon. Dooley came from his home across the street to complain about a 14-year-old skateboarder who had gotten James' permission to use the other side of the court. Witnesses said an argument between James and Dooley took a lethal turn when Dooley flipped up his T-shirt, revealing a gun in his waistband, as he cursed James. They said Dooley then turned and headed home, but James spun him around and tried to grab the gun. The men fell to the ground.
Dooley, who is 5 feet 7 and weighs 160 pounds, told jurors he had to struggle with a man 28 years younger who was 6-1 and 240 pounds. He said he pulled out the gun only after James grabbed him by the throat. "I had no other choice,'' he said.
On the night of his jury conviction in November, Jamaican-born Dooley blamed racism for his prosecution. "Do you really think that if it was the other way around and the skin color would be different we would be here today?" he asked reporters. "We wouldn't."
Moody said Thursday that Dooley was convicted "by a multiracial jury of men and women who listened to every minute detail."
His family said Dooley didn't really mean to blame his conviction on race, it was something he blurted out in frustration.
Dooley hung his head as forensic psychologist Richard Carpenter attributed his rigidity and inability to express remorse to an abusive childhood that included being tied to a tree and whipped by a stepfather in Jamaica.
Carpenter said the experience compelled him "to never let anyone take that kind of control over him again." He became "an overly diligent, hard-working conservative type."
Dooley's attorney Ronald Tulin said Dooley had been his daughter's middle school bus driver.
The prosecution and James' family said the Dooley who killed was a criminal.
"You're a bitter old man who is trying convince everybody you're a kind, frail old man," said James' widow, Kanina. "I hope you spend the rest of your miserable life in jail."
James' daughter, Danielle, who now lives in Minnesota, wrote a letter read in court that said, "I never wanted my dad's last words to be 'Call an ambulance. I've been shot.' " She ended the letter by saying, "I hate your guts, Trevor Dooley."
In response, Dooley's attorney read a letter directed at Danielle. "If I could find the words," Dooley wrote, "I would tell her how sorry I am for the pain I caused. … I would like Danielle to find it in her heart to forgive a stupid old man."
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383.