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74-year-old bank robbery suspect decides to stand trial

TAMPA — The 74-year-old wanted to resolve his three bank robbery charges and end a very public chapter of his life as the "grandpa bandit."

James Bruce initially told a judge at a hearing Wednesday that he would take a plea deal. He had made up his mind, he said as the hearing began.

But concerns about his mind then led to a puzzling turn of events. At the end of the hearing, his attorney told a judge they would instead prepare for trial.

Bruce agreed.

Lawyers have not divulged terms of the proposed plea deal, but it likely did not include prison time. Bruce has no criminal record and did not use a gun.

If convicted by a jury, he could get a maximum of 15 years in prison on each charge, though a judge could choose to give a more lenient sentence.

Since February, when police accused Bruce of robbing three South Tampa banks with demand notes, his family and lawyers have had concerns about his competency.

At a previous hearing, Assistant Public Defender Jason Isaac said a doctor doubted Bruce's ability to make higher-level decisions — whether to take a plea or go to trial, for instance.

But two doctors evaluated him after that, and while they noted concerns about his cognitive abilities, they said Bruce was competent to proceed with his case.

"I would like to resolve it, your honor," Bruce told the judge.

"It's been quite a strain on me and my wife."

Isaac told the judge he would speak briefly to Bruce outside, to make sure he understood the plea deal.

More than an hour passed. The judge wondered what was going on. He asked, "Is Mr. Isaac about done in the Bruce matter?"

Isaac was behind the closed door of a witness room, papers laid across a table, talking to Bruce and his wife. With them for much of that hour was another public defender who deals with competency issues.

Once the discussion was over, Isaac told the judge that he and his client were not on the same page about the plea.

The lawyer said he wanted to set the case for trial and saw benefits to litigating the case. A prosecutor said that as the case nears trial, the opportunity to make a deal will diminish.

Holder asked Bruce if he understood what was happening. Was he sure he wanted to go to trial?

"At this time, your honor, yes," Bruce said.

A trial date was set for Jan. 10.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Accused of robbing three South Tampa banks, James Bruce, 74, center, told a judge Wednesday he wanted a plea deal. “It’s been quite a strain on me and my wife,” he said. Bruce changed his mind before the day was over. If convicted, he could get 15 years.

SKIP O’ROURKE | TIMES

Accused of robbing three South Tampa banks, James Bruce, 74, center, told a judge Wednesday he wanted a plea deal. “It’s been quite a strain on me and my wife,” he said. Bruce changed his mind before the day was over. If convicted, he could get 15 years.

74-year-old bank robbery suspect decides to stand trial 10/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 10:55pm]
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