UPDATE: The jury of 11 women and one man found James Rowland Hooper III guilty of second-degree murder and use of a firearm in commission of a felony after about two hours and 45 minutes of consideration Friday.
Judge Stacey W. Moreau also found him guilty of possession of a firearm as a violent felon in a separate bench trial — a charge carrying five mandatory years incarceration.
The jury recommended the maximum sentence of 40 years on the murder charge after approximately six minutes of deliberation, and the use of a firearm carries a mandatory three years in prison.
All told, Hooper faces a mandatory eight years in prison with the possibility of an additional 40 depending on a judge’s determination
ORIGINAL STORY: Defendant James Rowland Hooper III sat in the witness seat for two hours of cross-examination in Pittsylvania County Circuit Court on Friday as prosecutors and his defense attorney deconstructed the minutia of his self-defense story.
Hooper, 46, of Lynchburg, is charged in connection to the January shooting death of Jacob Steele Robertson, 27, of Lynchburg — a prosecution that has gone a full day beyond its originally scheduled length. Hooper is accused of killing Robertson at the Circle K gas station next to the Bojangles’ restaurant after a road-rage incident on U.S. highway 29.
The jury of 11 women and one man left for deliberation at 6:45 p.m. and had not returned with a verdict by deadline for this story.
Hooper’s testimony began Thursday and trickled into Friday with Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Haskins’ cross- examination of the defendant. At issue was the veracity of his side of the story, which Haskins laid into. Hooper maintained that, as he was driving south on U.S. 29, Robertson’s car pulled along side him, and the 27-year-old made taunting gestures at him and swerved into his lane of traffic. He said he also may have seen Robertson brandishing a gun.
Hooper, who was driving the car, said he pulled into the gas station while Robertson tailed him. Haskins did not agree with that story, which he claimed was manufactured and inconsistent with Hooper’s previous statements to police.
“Adding detail is one thing,” Haskins said, “changing the entire story is another ... and he altered the truth.”
Hooper said he pulled into the gas station out of habit — he and his wife typically stop there on their way to Danville, he testified — when Robertson, who Hooper claimed had run him off the road, approached with a gun outstretched. Hooper then described how Robertson lowered the gun, and began raising it again. But this time he said the 27-year-old started to pivot toward his wife with the gun. So Hooper shot him in the chest — in self-defense, he claimed — though he was aiming for Robertson’s shoulder. Then Hooper shot him again after Robertson pivoted toward his car and pushed off it to make a grab for the gun he had dropped after being shot.
In response, Haskins showed surveillance video taken from the store, showing Hooper’s car tailgating Robertson’s as they entered the gas station. When both cars park, Hooper’s wife, Lillian, exits the car pointing and moving toward the Robertson’s Buick SUV. The video was grainy and taken from far away, but Haskins said it proved Hooper was the aggressor in the incident — when corroborated by the commonwealth’s eyewitnesses.
Lillian Hooper, also testified to his innocence, saying Robertson and his fiance had started yelling at them as they pulled in. But Haskins, armed with video of the confrontation, asked what she had intended when she exited the car pointing and gesturing at the Robertson’s SUV.
“You were looking for a fight, weren’t you,” he asked.
“No,” she replied.
Haskins also played a jail phone call between the Hoopers made the day after the shooting. There, he said, Lillian asked where she had been during the shooting — implying the two were coordinating their stories.
“He was lifting his arm. I was in the middle, correct?” a female voice asks on the recording.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” a male voice responds.
Defense attorney Elmer Woodard said Lillian had placed the call to her husband to answer the question of where she had been during the shooting. He said there was no collusion between them, and James Hooper denied tailoring his story to match what his wife told police.
“Were you asking him to tell you where you were?” Woodard queried.
“I wanted to know where he was,” Lillian Hooper parroted.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Molly Burke summarized the prosecution’s case for the jury, whose eyes had flickered between defendants and attorneys most of the day — like their back-and-forth was a day-long tennis match.
“He is trying to sell you a lie,” she told the jury. “He did not have a chance; this defendant did not give him a chance.”
Whitlow writes for the Register & Bee. Contact him at (434) 791-7983.