TAMPA — Ronnie Oneal, the Riverview father accused in the 2018 slaughter of his girlfriend and their 9-year-old daughter, and the attempted killing of their then-8-year-old son, is claiming self-defense.
Attorneys for Oneal have invoked Florida’s stand your ground law to argue that he should be immune from prosecution, at least for the death of his girlfriend.
Kenyatta Barron was killed after she attacked Oneal in their home, defense attorneys wrote in a court paper. He had to act, they said, “to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself and/or his children.”
The claim was the subject of a Monday morning court hearing, which included the playback of a pair of 911 calls made the night of March 19, 2018.
“I’ve just been attacked by some ... white demons,” Oneal says in one call, “that was inside Keke.”
Keke was Barron’s nickname.
“You say Keke tried to attack you?” a call-taker asked.
“Yes, yes, yes, she did,” Oneal said. “She tried to kill me.”
The call ended shortly thereafter.
Florida’s stand your ground law says a person has no duty to retreat and can use deadly force when in fear of great bodily harm or death. The law was tweaked in 2017, putting the burden on prosecutors to prove that a defendant was not in fear for his or her life or well-being when using deadly force.
Since the change, stand your ground claims have popped up with greater frequency in local court cases. Critics say it often results in what feels like two trials — a hearing at which prosecutors must convince a judge that self-defense does not apply and a regular trial where they must convince a jury of the defendant’s guilt.
It’s hard to say if the bizarre circumstances of Oneal’s case are the kind of thing state lawmakers had in mind when they crafted the controversial law.
Oneal, 32, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Barron, who was beaten, stabbed and shot outside the couple’s Riverview home. He is also accused of murdering their daughter, 9-year-old Ron’Niveya Oneal, who authorities said was stabbed multiple times. And he is accused of setting fire to their home and trying to kill their son, Ronnie Oneal IV, who deputies said emerged from the house, stabbed and burned, as they arrived.
Before she died, Barron placed a 911 call. On Monday, her words filled a courtroom.
“God help me, please,” she says. “Jesus help me, I’m shot.”
She screams as the call-taker struggles to get her to say her address. A man is heard saying “allahu akbar.”
“I’m so sorry,” Barron says. “I’m so sorry.”
James Gray, who was staying with his then-fiance at the home next door to Oneal’s, testified that he awoke that night to screams outside the house. He gazed through a peephole in the front door and saw one person standing over another.
He told his girlfriend to call 911, then walked outside. He recognized Oneal, who was standing over Barron, gripping her arm as she lay face down, he said.
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“As soon as I stepped out, he started yelling at me, saying I didn’t understand,” Gray said.
Oneal repeatedly said “she killed me,” Gray said. He yelled, “allahu akbar,” an Arabic phrase that means “God is greatest.”
Oneal let go of Barron’s arm and walked back toward his house, Gray said.
Thomas Dirks, a former homicide detective, told the court about his observations at the crime scene. He described injuries to Barron’s face and head, and a gunshot wound to her upper body. A shotgun, which had been broken apart, lay nearby.
A judge made no decision on the stand your ground matter Monday. Testimony was set to resume Thursday.
Oneal’s trial is set for early next year. Prosecutors expect a key witness will be his now 11-year-old son.
But the boy would likely suffer psychological harm if he had to see his father in court, prosecutors said. They want a judge’s permission to allow him to testify through closed-circuit video.
Jacquelyn Flood, a clinical psychologist who specializes in children and trauma, told the court that testifying in person would cause “significant emotional distress” and could make worse a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder.
Another factor potentially complicating the case is the boy’s adoption by one of the homicide detectives who investigated the crime. It was mentioned in court Monday, but was not a subject of extended discussion. A court terminated Oneal’s parental rights in December 2018.
If a jury finds Oneal guilty of first-degree murder, the state plans to seek the death penalty.
Correction: Thomas Dirks testified Monday in a stand your ground hearing in the case of Ronnie Oneal. A previous version of this story included an incorrect first name.