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In rambling speech, Tampa defendant says he supports death penalty

Defending himself in his murder trial, Ronnie Oneal III got a chance to question jurors Tuesday.
Ronnie Oneal III sits in court Monday during jury selection for his murder trial in Tampa. The state is seeking the death penalty in the case where Oneal is charged with first-degree murder in the March 2018 deaths of his girlfriend, Kenyatta Barron, and their 9-year-old daughter, Ron'Niveya Oneal. He is also accused of the attempted murder of his then-8-year-old son. Oneal has insisted he does not want the help of his court-appointed public defenders in trial and Judge Michelle Sisco has allowed him to represent himself.
Ronnie Oneal III sits in court Monday during jury selection for his murder trial in Tampa. The state is seeking the death penalty in the case where Oneal is charged with first-degree murder in the March 2018 deaths of his girlfriend, Kenyatta Barron, and their 9-year-old daughter, Ron'Niveya Oneal. He is also accused of the attempted murder of his then-8-year-old son. Oneal has insisted he does not want the help of his court-appointed public defenders in trial and Judge Michelle Sisco has allowed him to represent himself. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jun. 8
Updated Jun. 8

TAMPA — After a prosecutor questioned 23 prospective jurors for more than two hours Tuesday about their views on the death penalty, Ronnie Oneal III finally got his chance to talk.

“My name is Ronnie Oneal III,” the defendant said from a lectern. “And as you can see, I’m self-representing myself in this case.”

Oneal — accused of killing his girlfriend, their daughter and trying to kill his son — then delivered a rambling, nine-minute speech in which he asked no individual questions but sought assurance that the jurors would stay open-minded, proclaimed his own support for capital punishment and offered details about his religious faith.

“When it comes to the death penalty, I just want you all to know that me personally, I am for it,” Oneal said. “If somebody has committed these crimes, they are worthy of death. Because me personally, I know a lot of you are religious. ...

“I was personally raised Baptist, but I am now a Muslim, which is pretty much irrelevant right now, but I just wanted to mention that, uh, you know, so that you can feel comfortable making the right decisions and making the decisions that I personally, the way that I personally believe and the way that I was brought up. And, uh, I believe in Christianity. I believe in the Bible, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible—”

Related: With death on the table, man begins his defense in Tampa murder trial

The digression prompted a prosecutor and a judge to intervene.

“This really is not the time for you to talk about your personal beliefs,” said Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco, “but to focus on the prospective jurors and what their beliefs are.”

“Yes, ma’m,” Oneal replied. “I just wanted to let the jurors know that I personally am for the death penalty.”

“Well, you’ve told them that,” the judge said. “So why don’t you ask your next question, all right? Again, the questions need to focus on them.”

The defendant continued to ramble, gesturing with his hands. He asked if jurors could look to the evidence, “have a rational mind,” and understand that he is innocent until proven guilty. No one said they couldn’t.

Oneal, 32, is accused of first-degree murder in the 2018 deaths of Kenyatta Barron and their 9-year-old daughter Ron’Niveya Oneal and the attempted killing of their 8-year-old son. He is also accused of setting fire to the family’s Riverview home during one night of horrific violence.

Related: 'I love it,' says man facing possible death penalty in Riverview slayings

Oneal has repeatedly insisted that he wants to handle his own defense. He has refused the assistance of a team of public defense lawyers who had overseen the case until he ditched them two weeks ago.

He said little of substance throughout the first day-and-a-half of jury selection. After a lunch break Tuesday, Judge Sisco once again asked him if he wanted to continue on his own.

“I’ll do fine by myself,” he said.

His speech came after Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon spent part of Tuesday morning and the bulk of the afternoon explaining the intricacies of Florida’s death penalty law, and probing individual jurors about whether they could potentially vote for a death sentence.

A handful were dismissed after explaining that they did not believe in capital punishment.

“I don’t believe in killing somebody,” one man said. “I served in the military. I’ve seen enough of it.”

Most in the group, though, seemed willing to at least consider a capital punishment in severe circumstances.

“I will tell you, in the past I have been in support of the death penalty,” one woman said. “However, sitting in a case personally, it becomes a lot more real. ... I have to go with the facts.”

Jury selection is expected to last the rest of this week.