TAMPA — For three years, Ronnie Oneal III has had highly trained public lawyers representing him as he faces a possible death sentence for the slayings of his girlfriend and their 9-year-old daughter.
Now, on the eve of a June trial date, he plans to go it alone.
In a routine if slightly surreal pretrial hearing last week, Oneal insisted he did not want the help of his court-appointed public defenders and would handle his defense on his own.
He was warned of the consequences of such a decision. He was advised that in his case — where the ultimate outcome may be his execution — the stakes couldn’t be any higher. In response, he pointed to an American rapper and songwriter who died in a drive-by shooting in 1997.
“I understand,” Oneal said. “I love it. Ready to die like B.I.G. ...
“You’re ready to die like B.I.G.?” asked Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco.
“Yeah,” Oneal said. “You know who that is?”
“Biggie Smalls?” Sisco said.
“That’s B.I.G.,” he said.
“Okay, yes, I know who Biggie Smalls is,” the judge said. “He was actually murdered, but — ”
“Just like I’m going to be, right?” Oneal said. “I was murdered a couple times already before. So I’m cool with being murdered again and coming back like B.I.G.”
Oneal in 2018 was declared incompetent to proceed in court and spent a few months in a state hospital before returning to a Hillsborough County jail. Subsequent mental health exams deemed him competent to go forward.
In court Thursday, Assistant State Attorney Ronald Gale told the judge that prosecutors did not believe Oneal was suffering from any severe mental illness based on available psychological reports and evaluations.
Judge Sisco conducted what’s known as a Faretta inquiry, a procedure in which a defendant is asked a lengthy series of questions to gauge whether he is able to represent himself.
Oneal, shackled and wearing a red jail uniform, sauntered from a defense table to a lectern. He stood, at times shifting his weight, nodding or rolling his head back, as he conversed with the judge.
He was asked his name.
“It was Ronnie Oneal III,” he said. “But I have a new name only that I know.”
“Well, we’re going to go by what your legal name is, not by what you renamed yourself,” the judge said.
“Well, it isn’t a name that I renamed myself,” Oneal said. “It’s a name that means more than Ronnie Oneal III. But all I’m gonna say is I swear to tell the truth.”
The judge explained the disadvantages of self-representation, that his access to legal materials, witnesses, and attorneys would be limited, and that he would not be entitled to special treatment just because he did not have a lawyer. The judge warned that if the trial began and he became disruptive, he could be removed from the courtroom and the trial would continue without him.
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Oneal seemed surprised.
“Well, to be honest, your honor, why (don’t) you guys just do that?” he said. “Because I’m already not present anyways.”
“You are present,” the judge said.
“Not to me,” Oneal said. “Y’all do what you want to do and that’s gonna end real soon. But keep doing what you’re doing and that’s it.”
He was asked how old he is.
“Hmm, that’s a good question,” he said. “I’m 32 — in this world.”
He said he could read and write and that he had a high school diploma. He said he hadn’t ever been diagnosed or treated for a mental illness, nor did he take psychotropic medications.
He was asked if anyone had told him not to use a lawyer.
“The most high God,” he replied.
Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies arrested Oneal the night of March 18, 2018, after a series of 911 calls brought them to a home on Pike Lake Drive in Riverview. In a neighbor’s yard, they found Kenyatta Barron, who had been beaten and shot to death. Inside the Oneal home, they later found 9-year-old Ron’Niveya Oneal, who had been fatally stabbed.
The house had been set on fire. As smoke billowed, Ronnie Oneal III strolled outside. He endured Taser shocks from deputies as he was subdued and arrested.
Soon afterward, his then-8-year-old son emerged from the home. The boy had been severely burned, had a collapsed lung and a gaping wound in his belly.
“My dad shot my mom,” he told deputies, according to case records.
Late last year, Oneal claimed self-defense under Florida’s stand your ground law. His lawyers argued that he killed Barron after she attacked him. In a recording of a 911 call, he can be heard saying that he’d been attacked by “white demons” that had been inside her. “She tried to kill me,” he said.
The judge denied his stand your ground claim.
Oneal’s son was later adopted by one of the homicide detectives who investigated the case. The boy’s status as a key witness has been a concern as the trial approaches. A judge said he would likely testify by remote video.
With Oneal representing himself, and the prospect that he would be allowed to cross-examine the boy, the judge cautioned that he would only be allowed to ask questions a lawyer could ask. She also instructed him to address the boy by his legal name. Oneal said he understood.
The trial is set to begin June 7.
Information from WTVT-Fox 13 was used in this report.