TAMPA — Six weeks ago, a wiry and muscular James Hanson, Jr. sat in a courtroom joking with his public defender. He was accused of robbing a bank four days earlier, then using his bare hands and belt to strangle to death a 68-year-old retired Valrico convenience store owner.
When a bailiff wheeled Hanson into a courtroom Tuesday to face a judge for the first time since a suicide attempt last month, he was barely able to raise his hand to take the oath.
Pale and gaunt, Hanson slumped in his wheelchair, his red prison jumpsuit hanging loosely on his hunched shoulders, a white bandage affixed to his throat below a scraggly beard. He looked blankly at Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe but was able to muster a soft, raspy “yes” when Wolfe asked if he understood what was happening during the proceedings.
With the help of Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt and Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Spradley, Hanson pleaded not guilty to bank robbery and carjacking and first degree murder in the death of Mathew Korattiyil, a beloved grandfather and retired store owner.
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Prosecutors say Hanson robbed the CenterState Bank in Valrico on Aug. 6 with an Airsoft-style BB gun, carjacked Korattiyil in the parking lot and then strangled him to death and dumped his body behind the nearby Sacred Heart Knanaya Catholic Community Center. Hanson was arrested on the same day, just 35 days after his release from prison for a previous armed bank robbery conviction.
Whether Hanson would ever again appear in court has been unclear since a detention deputy found him Aug. 13 hanging by a bed sheet from a basketball goal at the Hillsborough County Jail. Hanson was rushed to Tampa General Hospital and placed on a ventilator. At one point doctors performed a tracheostomy, inserting a breathing tube through an incision in his throat, his sister told the Tampa Bay Times last month.
But Hanson’s condition gradually improved and last Wednesday he was moved from Tampa General to the medical unit at the Falkenburg Road Jail.
Three rows of Korattiyil’s family and friends watched quietly from the gallery Tuesday as Hanson appeared from a holding area next to the courtroom for the arraignment that lasted about two-and-a-half minutes.
Hanson is also charged with battery, armed kidnapping, resisting law enforcement with violence, and violating probation. After the murder, prosecutors say, Hanson led deputies on a chase in Korattiyil’s Lexus SUV, crashed the vehicle, fled on foot and then resisted when deputies caught up to him.
Because of Hanson’s hospitalization, Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner has filed a motion seeking to stop the clock on the state’s speedy trial provision. In Florida, defendants charged with felonies have a right to trial within 175 days. A hearing on that motion is set for Sept. 26, but Hanson likely won’t be there. During Tuesday’s hearing, he waived his right to appear.
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren has not yet announced whether his office will seek the death penalty in the case.
“Our office will continue to prosecute this case to the fullest extent of the law to achieve justice for Mr. Korattiyil and our entire community,” Warren said in a statement Tuesday in response to a query from the Times.