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Trevor Dooley, who killed neighbor on a Valrico basketball court, gets new trial

Trevor Dooley fatally shot a neighbor in front of the man's 8-year-old daughter in Valrico in 2010.
Trevor Dooley fatally shot a neighbor in front of the man's 8-year-old daughter in Valrico in 2010.
Published Apr. 23, 2016

Trevor Dooley was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison for shooting neighbor David James through the heart in front of James' 8-year-old daughter in 2010.

Now the 75-year-old Dooley could soon walk free.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal granted him a new trial Friday because of an ineffective appellate lawyer and "erroneous" wording in the jury instructions on the justifiable use of deadly force. In Florida, that's known as the "stand your ground" law.

The ruling was "per curiam," which means all three judges agreed. Dooley will be returned to Hillsborough County in a few weeks, his lawyer said, and will be eligible to be freed on bail pending a new trial.

Dooley was 69 when he got into an argument with James, 41, over a teen skateboarder using the basketball court in their Valrico neighborhood on Sept. 25, 2010. The argument got physical. It ended with Dooley shooting and killing James.

Convicted in 2013, Dooley has spent three years and three months of his sentence at Suwannee Correctional Institution Annex in Live Oak.

During Dooley's trial, he testified that he fired in self-defense as he and James scuffled. But prosecutors successfully argued that Dooley could not use a "stand your ground" defense because he already broke the law when he showed his gun to the victim, committing the crime of unlawful exhibition of a weapon.

The 2nd DCA said the state was wrong, that "stand your ground" doesn't depend on whether or not a person is "engaged in unlawful activity," according to the opinion.

"I am very happy with the decision reached by the (2nd) District Court of Appeal," said Dooley's attorney, William Ponall, in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "The Court correctly recognized that the self-defense instructions provided to the jury were legally incorrect and deprived Mr. Dooley of his right to a fair trial."

Stetson University law professor Charles Rose doesn't expect the Dooley case to reach another jury. Now Dooley's attorneys can ask for a "stand your ground" hearing, and if the trial judge rules Florida' self-defense law applies to the case, there may not be a retrial.

If Dooley's lawyers don't ask for a hearing, then they'll be free to make an even stronger claim of self-defense at the retrial.

"If they pick the right path," Rose said of the defense, "the prosecution is going to have a hell of a mess."

He believes the state and the defense will likely reach a plea deal with Dooley being resentenced to the time he has already served in prison.

A spokesman for the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office said prosecutors have not yet decided their next move.

"We will be reviewing the court's decision, and we will determine from that point what our next step will be," said spokesman Mark Cox.

In 2014, the 2nd DCA upheld Dooley's 2013 conviction and sentence on direct appeal. But in the opinion released Friday, the appellate court agreed with Dooley's latest arguments.

The issue of ineffective assistance of counsel regards Dooley's 2014 appeal. The court said the attorney handling that appeal should have raised the error in the instructions read to the jury about self-defense: "If the defendant was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force."

The appellate attorney, according to the court, should have pointed out that the jury instructions said Dooley could only have acted in self-defense if he wasn't breaking any other laws when he fired the weapon.

Using those instructions, prosecutors argued at trial that Dooley broke the law when he brandished his weapon before he and James fought. But case law already dictated before Dooley's trial that whether a crime was being committed doesn't affect "stand your ground" immunity, the court said.

"The incorrect instructions and the prosecutor's reliance on those instructions during closing argument effectively negated Mr. Dooley's sole defense based on a misstatement of the law," Ponall said. "The jury was not given the correct law to use in reaching their verdict."

The shooting took place 5½ years ago, on a Sunday afternoon. James was playing basketball with his 8-year-old daughter, Danielle, at Twin Lakes recreational park, near their home. Dooley lived across the street from the park.

He went outside to speak with James. Dooley was annoyed that a 14-year-old was skateboarding on the park's basketball court. The teen, though, had permission from James.

The argument escalated and Dooley lifted his T-shirt, revealing the gun tucked into his waistband, witnesses said.

Then Dooley pulled the gun out, they said, as James stepped closer. They said James tried to wrest the gun away. The men fell to the ground.

Dooley later testified that he had to shoot, that James held him by the throat. He had to defend himself against the man who was 28 years younger and 80 pounds heavier.

"He was killing me," Dooley testified. "My finger was on the trigger. I shot."

The witnesses said they didn't see James trying to choke Dooley.

After his conviction, before the man who killed her father was sentenced, Danielle James wrote a letter to the court.

"I never wanted my dad's last words to be 'Call an ambulance. I've been shot.' "

She ended the letter with: "I hate your guts, Trevor Dooley."

Times senior news researcher John Martin and staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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