The last time he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, James William Hanson Jr. was set free 17 years later after striking a deal with the state and a merciful judge determined he had matured into a “changed man.”
But on Monday, Hanson once again was ushered into a Hillsborough County courtroom — the first day of his first-degree murder trial where, once again, a possible life sentence hangs in the balance. The only mercy offered by the state this time was its decision not to pursue the death penalty, prosecutors said.
Hanson, 41, sat facing a jury pool so voluminous it spilled into the lobby outside Judge Samantha Ward’s courtroom. He furrowed his brow while fighting to maintain a downward gaze — avoiding the faces in the crowded courtroom as many heard, for the first time, the story behind the seven charges in his case.
On Aug. 6, 2019 — just 35 days after he was released from state prison after his life sentence for an armed robbery was cut short — investigators say Hanson confessed to robbing a CenterState Bank in Valrico with an airsoft-style BB gun, then carjacking a retired grandfather in the parking lot.
He kidnapped 68-year-old Mathew Korattiyil, driving away in Korattiyil’s Lexus SUV, authorities said. And when Korattiyil tried to flee, Hanson strangled him to death, using both his belt and his bare hands.
He dumped Korattiyil’s body behind the Sacred Heart Knanaya Catholic Community Center about a mile from the bank, then led deputies on a high-speed chase in the stolen Lexus, court records said. When he eventually crashed the SUV, Hanson started running, deputies said. And when they caught up to him, he violently fought his arrest.
At his 2019 bail hearing, a detective with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said that Hanson gave investigators a “full confession” within hours of being booked into a county jail.
According to that testimony, Hanson told them he tried to rob the bank to get money for his girlfriend, who was struggling financially, and for his sister, who was at risk of being evicted. When he got there, though, he wasn’t given any money and he panicked. He told them he only carjacked Korattiyil so he wouldn’t leave empty-handed, the detective said.
A week later, Hanson wrapped a bedsheet around his neck and hanged himself from a basketball goal at Falkenburg Road Jail, court records show. He was rushed to Tampa General Hospital and placed on life support. His family was told to come and say their goodbyes.
But Hanson survived. He regained consciousness, was given a tracheostomy and was returned to jail after three weeks in the hospital. In the months that followed, he came to court slumped in a wheelchair, the scars on his neck wrapped in bandages and his red prison jumpsuit swallowing his gaunt frame.
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On Monday, though, Hanson seemed poised and well-kempt in a pressed suit and tie. He seemed lithe and strong and sat up straight in his seat. He no longer needed a wheelchair, and his scars were no longer visible from the back bench of the courtroom’s gallery.
Despite detectives saying he confessed three years ago, Hanson has pleaded not guilty to all seven of his charges.
Of the 50 prospective jurors summoned to Ward’s courtroom on Monday, only a handful said they remembered the news surrounding Hanson’s arrest. Only a few more volunteered that they would struggle to presume his innocence and should be dismissed. The woman who lived through two robberies at a bank where she used to work. A man still struggling with his nephew’s murder. A woman who was mugged on a New York City subway just days before a man followed her mother into her apartment building’s elevator and stole all the money she had.
Yet most assured the panel of attorneys they would be fair and impartial should they be selected for Hanson’s 12-member jury, including some who said they themselves had been victims of robberies, burglaries and break-ins.
One woman even told the court that her brother was killed during a carjacking about 20 years ago.
“Still,” she said. “I would like to think I could be fair. A lot of time has passed.”
By the end of the day, the court had selected its jurors. Two weeks have been set aside for Hanson’s trial, with opening statements starting at 9 a.m. Tuesday.