CHATHAM — Defendant James Rowland Hooper III tells a very different story of the fatal shooting at the Circle K gas station than Pittsylvania County prosecutors — it’s one of self defense. But it will take him an extra day beyond his trial’s schedule to fully tell it.
Hooper’s two-day trial was extended through Friday after prosecutors rested their case Thursday afternoon. Both attorneys anticipate several more hours of testimony and cross- examination before the jury can go into deliberation.
Hooper, 46, of Lynchburg, is accused of shooting Jacob Steele Robertson, 27, also of Lynchburg, on Jan. 8 after a road rage incident and is charged with first-degree murder, use of a firearm in commission of a felony and possession of a firearm as a felon.
The initial setup of his testimony is the same as the prosecution’s version of events: Hooper and his wife were driving south on U.S. 29 toward Danville when a car passed them. There, an incident happened. But differing from prosecutors’ depiction of events, Hooper said the car swerved into his lane and forced him to drive on the shoulder of the road. He and his wife then stopped at the Circle K next to the Bojangles’ restaurant, which is typical for their trips south. He pulled into the gas station and was accosted by a gun-wielding Robertson, he testified.
“Mr. Robertson was already coming at me with his gun in his hand,” Hooper said.
He said Robertson — who legally owned a gun and had a concealed carry permit — racked his weapon multiple times and pointed the pistol at him, asking if they had a problem. Hooper informed him that he had almost ran him off the road, and the two locked eyes.
“As Mr. Robertson started to raise his gun, he broke eye contact with me,” Hooper testified. “I pulled my weapon and fired.”
Hooper said after the first shot, Robertson spun around, dropped his pistol and then reached for it. Hooper said he fired another shot after that. The bullet struck Robertson’s heart and lung, effectively killing him where he stood, in front of his fiance.
But Pittsylvania County Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Haskins had argued Hooper’s version of events was wrong, and was not bolstered by video or witness testimony. He claimed Hooper had been the one to run the Robertsons off the road, and confront Jacob Robertson at the gas station armed with a gun. While Robertson did have a gun on him, it did not leave its holster until after he was dead — when Hooper put it in his car, Haskins said.
Two spent shell casings and two live 9mm cartridges were found the scene, investigators Shannon Edwards, of the Pittsylvania County Sheriff’s Office, testified. Hooper was the only one holding a 9mm. But the two live shells were accidentally put into incorrect evidence bags, so defense attorney Elmer Woodard tried to have them thrown out as evidence.
Judge Stacey W. Moreau did not approve Woodard’s motion.
The defense also moved to strike the murder charge, arguing Hooper was in fear for his life and killed Robertson in the heat of passion.
“Malice and heat of passion are mutually exclusive,” Woodard argued. “This man had a gun pointed at him.”
But Pittsylvania County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Molly Burke said the evidence did not suggest any passion in the killing.
“He had a specific intent to kill,” Burke countered. “Where is the passion? Mr. Robertson got out of his vehicle ... and he is murdered.”
Forensic scientist for the Virginia Department of Forensic Science Wendy Gibson said she compared the spent casings to Hooper’s gun. They matched. The unspent 9 mm cartridges found at the scene were not able to be matched to any gun.
“I identified those cartridges were fired from that ... pistol,” she testified. She also pointed out that a 9mm pistol could not cycle .40-caliber ammunition, like that used in Robertson’s pistol.
The trial is scheduled to continue today.
Whitlow writes for the Register & Bee. Contact him at (434) 791-7983.