TAMPA — Danielle James is just on that cusp between child and adolescent. She'll turn 11 next month. She can speak maturely and calmly about the day two years ago when her father died in front of her, but only while clutching her stuffed bunny, Monica.
Inadvertently Friday, Danielle helped the man who shot and killed her father defend himself against manslaughter. Contrary to other witnesses in a trial this week, Danielle didn't say she heard a curse or saw a gun. She said she only saw the man — 71-year-old Trevor Dooley — try to walk away.
She called him "Trevor."
She may not have known which was his last name.
Danielle testified on closed-circuit television in a room adjacent to the courtroom where Dooley has stood trial all week for the death of 41-year-old David James. Lawyers agreed it could be emotionally harmful for Danielle to sit in the same room as Dooley.
Dooley's attorney asked her to recall a September Sunday in 2010. "I was playing basketball with my dad," she said. They were at a park in the East Lake neighborhood in Valrico.
She remembered Dooley puttering around in his driveway across the street. She thought he was washing his car, but he actually was fixing a mower.
She remembered how Dooley started yelling at a teenage skateboarder who was practicing tricks on the other end of the court. Her dad told Dooley to let the kid be, or show him a sign that said no skateboarding. She then saw Dooley walk across the street.
All this Danielle narrated calmly. She has her mother's eyes, but looks like she'll have her father's height. She looked straight ahead, never down. She wore pigtails with a red headband.
Dooley's attorney, Ron Tulin, guided her gently to the critical moment.
She said Dooley and her father confronted each other in the grass beside the court. She watched them from under a tree.
"My dad was walking up to him. (Dooley) turned, acting like he was going to walk home. I don't remember if (Dooley) said anything. My dad was kind of getting louder.
"He tried to get the man to come back. He kind of like walked fast, he asked 'Where's the sign?'
"The man turned around and came back."
That was the last question Tulin asked her.
Other witnesses have testified that Dooley flashed a gun before he walked away, then pulled it out when he came back. James grabbed his hand, they said, and both fell to the ground. Dooley fired, and James died from a shot through his heart.
Danielle wasn't asked to remember that. The trial was halted shortly after her testimony and will resume Monday, when Dooley is expected to testify.
Danielle left Friday for Minnesota, where she lives with a paternal aunt. It's where her father grew up. She's in the fifth grade, and a good student, according to her mother.
But Danielle has been in counseling for two years. On the day her father died, she couldn't speak.
Her mother, Kanina, has also struggled. Danielle was placed under the supervision of the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Kanina James declined to talk about why, or whether they will be reunified, but she said she gets to visit. Danielle sat with her aunt during Friday's testimony while her mother watched from the courtroom.
Danielle will see her mother again a week after her birthday — at Christmas.
John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or [email protected]