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Judge declares mistrial in case of man accused in Valrico carjacking, slaying

During opening arguments, one juror remembered her connection to the case. All 12 jurors had to be dismissed.
James Hanson Jr., 41, attends his jury selection hearing before 13th Circuit Court Judge Samantha Ward on Tuesday at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa. The Valrico man faces seven charges, including felony counts of carjacking, kidnapping, armed robbery and first-degree murder, after investigators say Hanson confessed to robbing a CenterState Bank in Valrico with an airsoft-style BB gun in August 2019, then carjacked 68-year-old Mathew Korattiyil and strangled him to death, using both his belt and his bare hands.
James Hanson Jr., 41, attends his jury selection hearing before 13th Circuit Court Judge Samantha Ward on Tuesday at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa. The Valrico man faces seven charges, including felony counts of carjacking, kidnapping, armed robbery and first-degree murder, after investigators say Hanson confessed to robbing a CenterState Bank in Valrico with an airsoft-style BB gun in August 2019, then carjacked 68-year-old Mathew Korattiyil and strangled him to death, using both his belt and his bare hands. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 20|Updated Sep. 20

TAMPA — For more than seven hours, the woman sat on a wooden pew in a Hillsborough County courtroom on Monday and stared at the man on trial for murder.

It had been big news back in August 2019, when James Hanson Jr. was arrested and accused of a cascade of crimes that began with a botched attempt to rob Valrico’s CityState Bank and devolved into a violent carjacking, kidnapping and killing of a beloved grandfather who just happened to pull into the parking lot as Hanson attempted to make his getaway.

Yet the woman, like most of the prospective jurors spilling out of the courtroom, told Judge Samantha Ward she had no prior knowledge of Hanson’s alleged crimes and never read the news stories. She said she had no prior experiences that might disqualify her for a jury and no qualms about her ability to remain fair and impartial.

He didn’t look familiar, she said, and the names didn’t ring a bell — until they did.

Just 20 minutes into the first day of Hanson’s trial Tuesday morning, Ward said she was forced to declare a mistrial due to “reasons beyond our control.” All 12 jurors were dismissed. And those left in the courtroom readied to start all over again — and fast.

13th Circuit Court Judge Samantha Ward presides over the jury selection hearing for James Hanson Jr., 41, on Tuesday at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa.
13th Circuit Court Judge Samantha Ward presides over the jury selection hearing for James Hanson Jr., 41, on Tuesday at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“I’m very sorry, I just felt like I need to be totally honest,” the woman told the judge and attorneys after the other 11 jurors were asked to leave the room so she could speak freely. “I needed to tell you.”

It wasn’t until the trial actually began, and state prosecutor Amanda Ojeda started to tell the story of Hanson’s alleged crimes and 68-year-old Mathew Korattiyil’s death, that the memories came flooding back, the woman said.

She knew this man — and the man he is accused of killing.

She remembered the father of her child calling her in a shocked daze to tell her about the new friend he met at a bar called the Stingray. Hanson was using an alias then, she said, but soon he began to talk about how he had just been released from prison after 17 years. He had been given a life sentence for an armed robbery gone wrong, but he struck a deal with the state to commute his sentence.

After Hanson’s arrest, her child’s father said he even got a phone call from a sheriff’s deputy who wanted to know everything he knew about his new friend at the bar.

“I remember him telling me in complete shock that this took place, and that the guy who was killed owned a convenience store that we often visited,” the woman said, visibly shaken as she looked over at Hanson and put the pieces together. “He’s in Las Vegas and has so many crazy stories I wasn’t really even listening, but then when she started talking it all came back.”

It was Ojeda’s narrative about what happened on Aug. 16, 2019, and the death of Korattiyil, who owned and operated a Valrico gas station, that “triggered” her memories, she said.

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State prosecutors Michelle Doherty, left, and Amanda Ojeda attend the jury selection hearing for James Hanson Jr., 41, before 13th Circuit Court judge Samantha Ward on Tuesday at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa.
State prosecutors Michelle Doherty, left, and Amanda Ojeda attend the jury selection hearing for James Hanson Jr., 41, before 13th Circuit Court judge Samantha Ward on Tuesday at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

After explaining the failed attempt to rob CityState bank, Ojeda told the court about the fatal carjacking. She said Hanson simply pushed his way into the driver’s seat of Korattiyil’s Lexus SUV, forcing him to become a passenger in his own vehicle as Hanson sped away from the deputies flocking to the bank. About a mile away, in a parking lot behind the Sacred Heart Knanaya Catholic Community Center, he used a belt and his bare hands to strangle Korattiyil to death, prosecutors said.

Related: ‘He came from nothing and built an American dream.’ Valrico carjacking victim Mathew Korattiyil remembered.

Later that day, deputies found Korattiyil’s body in the bushes behind the church, dressed only in his underwear. Hanson had stolen his wallet and jewelry, Ojeda said.

The woman told the judge she didn’t think she could remain impartial and fair in this case. She knew too many details that were never meant to be disclosed to the jury, and too much history about the men involved to honestly rely just on the facts presented in court, the woman said. In her mind, Hanson is guilty.

Assistant State Attorney Michelle Doherty quickly rushed across the gallery of the small courtroom to talk to Korattiyil’s family members — at least 10 of whom sat stunned in silence in a single pew. She assured them this wasn’t going to knock the trial off track. The Hillsborough County Courthouse is a big place, she said, and scores of potential jurors are always waiting around somewhere, waiting to be called upon to fulfill their civic duty. The trial would begin Wednesday, she told them, and they would still hear a jury reach a verdict before the end of next week, just like they had planned.

James Hanson Jr., 41, left, attends his jury selection hearing with defense attorneys Carolyn Schlemmer, left, and Jennifer Spradley, right, on Tuesday at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa.
James Hanson Jr., 41, left, attends his jury selection hearing with defense attorneys Carolyn Schlemmer, left, and Jennifer Spradley, right, on Tuesday at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

True to the plan, the court managed to collect a brand-new pool of 60 jurors by lunchtime, and Ward said she was confident they could find another 12 candidates by the end of the day, plus two alternates just in case.

The Korattiyil family didn’t stick around to watch. They’ll be back Wednesday, they told Doherty. Opening statements are set to begin, again, at 8:45 a.m.

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