Convicted of killing his neighbor, Trevor Dooley talks of race but not remorse

Trevor Dooley demonstrates in court on Monday how he says David James choked him in a neighborhood park in 2010. Dooley was found guilty of manslaughter for shooting his neighbor.
Trevor Dooley demonstrates in court on Monday how he says David James choked him in a neighborhood park in 2010. Dooley was found guilty of manslaughter for shooting his neighbor.
Published Nov. 21, 2012

TAMPA — While this week's manslaughter trial of 71-year-old Trevor Dooley was emotionally tangled, his sentencing on Jan. 10 promises to include a whole new volatility: race.

Under Florida sentencing guidelines, Dooley could receive between 10 and 30 years for shooting and killing his 41-year-old Valrico neighbor, David James, beside a basketball court in 2010. They had argued over a skateboarder using the court. But prison isn't automatic. The judge could hear things about Dooley, whom a jury found guilty Monday, that move her to leniency — even to a sentence of probation.

Remorse is the most common mitigator. It's described this way in state guidelines for leniency: "The offense was committed in an unsophisticated manner and was an isolated incident for which the defendant has shown remorse."

But no one has heard remorse from Dooley. That could affect his chances of prison.

"Remorse matters a great deal. Lack of remorse matters just as much," Tampa defense lawyer Rick Terrana said Tuesday. "It goes a long way with a sentencing judge."

In his own testimony, Dooley portrayed himself as the true victim, saying he fired only to save his life. After trial, Dooley, who is black, told reporters the whole case was racist. David James was white.

"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. "We wouldn't."

On Tuesday, 76-year-old Tampa lawyer Delano Stewart — who broke the color barrier in the Public Defender's Office in the 1960s — said he wants to appear at the sentencing to tell the judge that Dooley is right.

"Trevor Dooley should never have been charged with manslaughter," Stewart said. "Race still plays too much of a part in charges and sentencing. There was racism in the charge. If Dooley had been an older white man, he would never have been charged."

Stewart said he will ask Dooley's attorney, Ronald Tulin, for permission to address Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ashley Moody.

Tulin did not return calls for comment, but he has never made race an issue.

In the "stand your ground" case of George Zimmerman, who is white, charged with the February shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was black, racial motives were questioned from the beginning.

Did the teenager's race have anything to do with the initial decision not to charge Zimmerman? If Zimmerman had been black, would authorities in Sanford have been so quick to accept his claim of self defense? Are black defendants less likely to walk free than people of other races in "stand your ground" cases?

A Tampa Bay Times analysis of nearly 200 Florida death cases — the first to examine the role of race in "stand your ground" — found that people who killed a black person walked free 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person went free 59 percent of the time.

But it found no obvious bias in how black defendants have been treated. Overall, black defendants went free 66 percent of the time in fatal cases compared to 61 percent for white defendants — a difference explained, in part, by the fact blacks were more likely to kill another black.

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In Dooley's case, racism wasn't cited at the time of his arrest or in the depositions of witnesses and investigators. It was not a part of the defense's closing arguments on Monday.

Dooley blurted it out after the verdict as he and his shaken wife of more than 40 years left the courthouse. He remains free on bail until sentencing.

Except for Stewart, other lawyers called the race card a risky one. Lawyer John Fitzgibbons predicted a different tack: "You can expect his attorney to argue that Dooley has lived a good life and the whole situation boiled down to an event that happened in a single moment."

Lawyer Jay Hebert said Dooley could express regret in some abstract way — simply for the death of another human being. Or Dooley could say something genuinely sympathetic about James' 8-year-old daughter, Danielle, who saw her father die, or the 14-year-old skateboarder, Spencer Arthur, who cried to a 911 dispatcher, "It was my fault."

Lawyer Stewart said Dooley should just say what he really feels. "Why should the truth come to haunt you?"

John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or