A frail, 71-year-old Trevor Dooley limped to the witness stand Thursday afternoon and in a slight Jamaican accent told how and why he shot to death a decorated U.S. Air Force serviceman in front of his 8-year-old daughter at a playground a year and a half ago.
"He was killing me," Dooley said during his testimony in the manslaughter case pending against him. "He was choking me to death."
The former school bus driver is charged with killing David James, 41, at the Twin Lakes recreational park in Valrico. The shooting was the result of a playground argument that escalated into a deadly confrontation when Dooley, who lives across the street, tried to tell a teenage skateboarder to get off the basketball court.
James, who was playing basketball with his daughter, Danielle, defended the teen, and an argument ensued with Dooley.
Dooley's testimony at George Edgecomb Courthouse came during a hearing on a motion to dismiss charges against him based on the state's "Stand Your Ground" defense. The law says people don't have to exhaust all avenues of retreat before using deadly force in self-defense.
Dooley said he was in front of his garage late on the afternoon of Sept. 26, 2010, and yelled to the teen to get off the court. That's when James, who did not know the teen or Dooley, intervened.
Dooley said he crossed the street and approached the teen to tell him to skateboard on a concrete pad nearby, and that he had no issue with James. But the much younger, much bigger James insisted on asking where the signs were prohibiting skateboarding, he said.
Dooley said James was "getting really red in the face, like, you know he was angry. So, I just said, 'screw this,' and turned around to walk away."
He sensed movement behind him and turned around, he said. That's when James spun him around. Dooley had a .32-caliber semi-automatic handgun in his right front pocket.
He said has a permit and carries it everywhere he goes, even around the house.
As he was spun around, he pulled the gun out but didn't point it at James, who saw the handgun and hip-checked Dooley into the ground.
Dooley said James had his left hand to his throat and was choking him on the ground and he felt as though he was blacking out. James reached over and grabbed Dooley's right hand, which held the gun and yanked it up between them, Dooley said.
"He was choking me and he never let go of my neck," Dooley said. "I was about to black out and the gun was pointed directly at his chest." Dooley held the gun, but James' hand was wrapped around his fist, he said. "I couldn't fight back, and the muzzle was right against his chest."
The gun fired, and Dooley said it was no accident. He shot James, he said, to save his own life.
"Both hands were on the gun," he said, "but my finger was on the trigger."
"And you shot that gun?" asked his attorney Ron Tulin of Plant City.
His testimony differed from the accounts from three eye witnesses, who said he came across the street in an aggressive manner and hiked up his T-shirt to show James the gun he had tucked into his waistband.
Dooley said he never puts his gun in his waistband and always keeps it in a hard-leather holster in his right front pocket.
He remained collected during a rigorous cross examination by Assistant State Attorney Stephen Udagawa, who suggested it was James who was trying to protect himself after he saw that Dooley was armed.
"There is no question you killed David James?" the prosecutor asked.
"No question," Dooley answered.
"It was not an accident?"
He questioned Dooley about the gun.
"You always walk around your house with a loaded gun?"
"Yes," the defendant replied.
"Even if you have no reason to walk around your house with a loaded gun in your pocket?"
"It's my house."
James' daughter, Danielle, testified earlier Thursday but did so on a closed circuit television from another courtroom. Court officials said there was a concern she would be emotionally traumatized if she was in the same room as Dooley.
Her testimony echoed what the other witnesses said but was less detailed. She said she never saw the gun until her after her father had been shot.
The hearing is scheduled to continue at 9 a.m. today. No more defense witnesses will take the stand, but prosecutors said they have three rebuttal witnesses.
It was unclear if Circuit Judge Ashley Moody would rule on the motion immediately.