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Defendant sentenced to life in prison after surprise plea in Valrico carjacking, murder

James Hanson Jr. shocked a Tampa courtroom Tuesday when he told a judge he had changed his mind about a jury trial and accepted a mandatory life sentence.
James Hanson Jr. told Circuit Judge Samantha Ward that he'd changed his mind about going to trial and wanted to plead guilty and accept a mandatory life sentence for the 2019 attempted robbery of a Valrico bank and subsequent carjacking and murder of 68-year-old Mathew Korattiyil.
James Hanson Jr. told Circuit Judge Samantha Ward that he'd changed his mind about going to trial and wanted to plead guilty and accept a mandatory life sentence for the 2019 attempted robbery of a Valrico bank and subsequent carjacking and murder of 68-year-old Mathew Korattiyil. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 21|Updated Sep. 22

TAMPA — Nobody was prepared for James Hanson Jr. to call off his opportunity for a jury trial before it could even begin — not his attorneys, not Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward, and certainly not the family of the man he kidnapped and killed in a carjacking outside a Valrico bank in 2019.

But on Tuesday evening, just as the court was selecting the 12 jurors and two alternates who would hear his case, Hanson asked Ward to allow him to plead guilty to all seven charges associated with his August 2019 crime spree.

Ward asked him several times if he was sure. The decision went against the advice of his own attorneys, she said. And it meant she would have no alternative choice but to sentence Hanson, 41, to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

“I understand,” Hanson replied. “It’s what I want to do.”

From the beginning, Hanson’s long-awaited jury trial didn’t go as planned.

Back in August 2019, after the Valrico man was arrested for an attempted armed bank robbery and subsequent carjacking, kidnapping and killing of 68-year-old Mathew Korattiyil, Hanson nearly succeeded in hanging himself from a basketball goal in the rec yard of a Hillsborough County jail. Deputies noticed Hanson hanging unconscious from his bed sheet just in time. A three-week stay at Tampa General Hospital was followed by a slow recovery process in the jail’s medical ward.

On Monday morning, Hanson arrived to court in a pressed suit and tie, ready to argue his not guilty pleas on seven felony charges.

Ward and the panel of attorneys seated their 12 jurors and an alternate after a lengthy selection process. But before the trial could get underway early Tuesday, their alternate was dismissed after calling to say their teenage daughter had run away from home and they would be unable to concentrate on Hanson’s case.

Then, as state prosecutor Amanda Ojeda began telling the story of Hanson’s crime spree on Aug. 6, 2019, another juror asked to address the judge and admitted she realized the father of her child had befriended Hanson in the month leading up to his arrest. Not only had he told her details about the case that weren’t meant to be shared with the jury, he had also been contacted by sheriff’s deputies after they found he had been texting with Hanson the day of his arrest.

With only 11 members left on the jury, Ward declared a mistrial, dismissing the witnesses gathered in the courtroom lobby to testify and the entire jury panel selected the day before. Court staff rushed to bring in a new pool of 60 potential jurors who had already been summoned to the sprawling courthouse that day. The process started all over again, though this time the many family members of Mr. Korattiyil, a beloved grandfather and recently retired owner of a local gas station, elected not to wait and see who would be selected to the second round of jurors.

But as state prosecutors and Hanson’s defense team began to narrow down their selections, about an hour before the courthouse closed for the evening, Hanson told his attorneys he didn’t want to do this again.

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Hanson already knew what it’s like to be found guilty in a jury trial, then sentenced to a life behind bars. When he was a younger man, he had been given a life sentence for another armed robbery gone wrong. But after serving roughly 17 years in state prison, Hanson was allowed to walk free after striking a deal with the state to testify in another case.

Then, just 35 days after his release, he was arrested once again in the attempted armed robbery at CityState Bank in Valrico and the carjacking and killing of Korattiyil.

On Tuesday, after Hanson decided to plead guilty, Korattiyil’s family was called back to court for a chance to address their patriarch’s killer.

Mathew Korattiyil, 68, died on Aug. 6. The Valrico resident was a father and grandfather and left behind a legacy as a protector of his family and his community. [Courtesy of Korattiyil family]
Mathew Korattiyil, 68, died on Aug. 6. The Valrico resident was a father and grandfather and left behind a legacy as a protector of his family and his community. [Courtesy of Korattiyil family]

His daughter told Hanson that every day without her father is a struggle, and said her hope is that Hanson never forgets the pain he brought to their lives. Yet his son, Nelson Korattiyil, said that even if that happens, it won’t make things right.

“Our pain will never really dissipate, even with what’s happening today,” Nelson Korattiyil said. “I’ve had two kids since you murdered him that he has not met.”

Before bailiffs ushered Hanson out of the courtroom, with the same furrowed brow and somber gaze he’s held throughout this week’s attempts at a trial, Hanson said he would like to offer Korattiyil’s family an apology.

“I’m sorry. I can’t bring him back and I can’t do nothing about it,” he said, looking towards the children’s faces as he spoke in a southern drawl. “I can’t bring him back and I apologize. And I apologize to you, Nelson. I’m sorry.”

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