TAMPA — At one table sat the prosecutors, both with advanced degrees from Samford and Villanova universities and boasting more than 50 years of combined legal experience.
At the other table sat the defendant, Ronnie Oneal III, with a high school diploma and a stubborn insistence that he did not want the help of likewise highly educated and skilled defense lawyers, even in the face of a possible death sentence.
Jury selection in Oneal’s trial began Monday, three years after he was accused of killing his girlfriend and their 9-year-old daughter and trying to kill their 8-year-old son in one unfathomable night of violence at their Riverview home.
Oneal, 32, traded his jail garb for a crisp dark suit and tie. A trio of public defenders sat nearby, ready to take over if he changed his mind. Eight sheriff’s deputies guarded the cavernous courtroom.
Before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco summoned a panel of 35 prospective jurors, she warned Oneal, once again, about the risks of going without a lawyer. The defendant, his voice soft, once again said he wanted to represent himself.
Anyone expecting much oddity or drama on the trial’s first morning was disappointed. It was a contrast to a pretrial hearing two weeks ago, wherein Oneal told the judge he was “ready to die like B.I.G.” and claimed that “the most high God” had told him to ditch his lawyers.
Court instead proceeded as trials typically do, albeit with the defendant himself questioning jurors directly.
They were told that the state has accused Oneal of seven separate crimes. They were told that two of those charges are first-degree murder and that a third was attempted murder. They were told that Oneal is also accused of setting fire to the family’s home and resisting efforts of law enforcement to arrest him.
They were told that that if they were to find him guilty, the state would then ask them to recommend a death sentence.
The first questions centered on whether jurors had already heard about the case, if they could commit to attending a three-week trial, and if they could be fair and impartial knowing that the defendant represents himself.
A few said they’d seen news reports.
One man said he’d seen an article online Sunday, but that it was factual and did not express an opinion.
“May I ask what part you considered factual?” Oneal asked.
“It reflected what the judge just said,” the man replied, referring to the reading of the indictment. “It was just bullet points of the facts.”
“Did you form any opinions?” Oneal asked.
“I did not,” the man said.
Although the judge said questions about capital punishment would come later, two jurors felt the need to express their beliefs.
“I’m a Catholic,” said one woman. “And I believe every human is a human being and no life should be taken.”
Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon asked if she could think of any situation where she would recommend a death sentence.
“No,” she replied. “I would not.”
Oneal tried to clarify his understanding of her faith.
“From my understanding, the Catholic religion is the head of all Christianity,” he said. “In the Catholic Bible ... it allows someone convicted of murder to be pretty much killed for being convicted of murder?”
“Every human has a right to live,” the woman said of her belief. “And their life should not be ended in any other way, other than naturally.”
Another man said he also had strong beliefs about the death penalty.
“I just believe anyone guilty of taking a life deserves to have their own taken,” he said.
He was allowed to remain until he could be questioned further. The woman was dismissed.
A second panel of 35 was questioned in the afternoon. By the end of the day, 49 out of 70 jurors remained. More were set to be questioned Tuesday.
Oneal and the prosecutors are expected to whittle down to a final panel of 12. They will be those who can commit to being fair and impartial, to presume that Oneal is innocent until the state meets the burden of proving him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and to be able to consider death as a possible punishment if they find him guilty.
Jury selection is expected to last a week.
One of the witnesses the state expects to have testify in the trial is Oneal’s son, who was adopted after the crime by one of the homicide detectives that investigated the case. If Oneal continues to represent himself, he will cross examine the boy. A judge has allowed the child to testify by video.
Defendants seldom represent themselves in court, and judges routinely warn of the folly of doing so. Still, from time to time, there are those who believe they can be their own advocate.
Such an arrangement can often produce frustrating if fascinating results.
It happened in the 2011 trial of Luis Munuzuri-Harris, who was accused of posing as a police officer and raping a woman along Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard. As he struggled before a jury for three days, Harris repeatedly drew a judge’s rebuke for making inappropriate remarks and, at one point, was yanked from the courtroom after an outburst. Mid-way through, he asked for a lawyer. He was later found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Some defendants don’t put up much of a fight.
When Reynaldo Figueroa-Sanabria was found guilty in 2019 of the Pinellas County slayings of John Travlos and Germana Morin, he chose to represent himself in the trial’s penalty phase. As prosecutors argued for a death sentence, Figueroa-Sanabria declined to question witnesses or present mitigating evidence. A unanimous jury decided he should be sentenced to death.