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Jurors express concern about Ronnie Oneal’s solo defense in Tampa trial

As the defendant hinted at a self-defense argument in his murder case, prospective jurors questioned his lack a lawyer.
Ronnie Oneal III sits in court Monday, June 7, 2021, 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.
Ronnie Oneal III sits in court Monday, June 7, 2021, 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. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jun. 10
Updated Jun. 10

TAMPA — On the fourth day of jury selection in his murder trial, Ronnie Oneal III offered what could be a preview of his defense as prospective jurors expressed concern about his ability to adequately represent himself.

Oneal questioned panelists about whether they believed a woman could be capable of murdering a child. He also asked whether they believed law enforcement or government officials could commit criminal acts.

“I do plan on proving some things to you all,” he said. “Because I am entitled to due process of law.”

A few jurors spoke up about the unusual nature of the proceedings.

One man wanted to know why the judge interrupted Oneal, but not the prosecutors. One woman wondered about the lawyers who were sitting near Oneal in the courtroom but saying little. A few said they would be uncomfortable deciding about a possible death sentence for a man who does not have lawyers representing him.

“I don’t really think it’s a level playing field,” said one man.

“If it was a race, I feel like y’all would already be in the lead,” another told the prosecutors.

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

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco explained that under the U.S. Constitution, Oneal has the right to choose to represent himself. He has three attorneys acting as standby counsel, to whom he can ask questions about the law, and who can step in if he changes his mind. The judge also noted that it’s tricky for a layperson to act as their own lawyer, but that she had to hold Oneal to the same rules as any attorney.

“At the end of the day, this is Mr. Oneal’s case,” the judge said. “This is his decision.”

Oneal, 32, is charged with first-degree murder in the 2018 killings of his girlfriend, Kenyatta Barron, and their 9-year-old daughter, Ron’Niveya Oneal at their Riverview home. He is also accused of the attempted murder of his then-8-year-old son.

Prosecutors spent several hours Thursday questioning the dozens of prospective jurors about their backgrounds, if they knew anyone who works in law enforcement, if they’d ever been the victim of a crime or were accused of committing one, and if they had experience with firearms.

When it was his turn, Oneal shuffled to a lectern. Slowly and softly, he read aloud the jury instructions that address the justifiable use of deadly force.

He asked whether the jurors understood that the Constitution allows people to bear arms. He asked whether they knew that the Constitution allows them the right to exercise their religion. He asked how many in the crowd believed a person has a right to kill in self-defense.

Related: In rambling speech, Tampa defendant says he support death penalty

At one point, he asked how many in the crowd were Christians and began to reference something from the Bible. The judge cut him off, advising that a person’s religious beliefs are rarely relevant in a criminal court proceeding.

Later, Oneal spent more than an hour querying jurors individually. He asked what they thought of the fact that he is representing himself.

“I understand that’s your constitutional right,” one woman told him. “But if I was in your shoes, I would not do that because my education and experience is not in law.”

“Do you think I’m crazy?” Oneal asked.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think you’re crazy.”

While some said they respected Oneal’s decision, a few said they thought it unwise.

“I’m telling him here and now,” one man said, “I think he’s making an unwise choice to proceed down that path.”

Late Thursday, Oneal and prosecutors finalized a panel of 12 jurors and two alternate jurors. Opening statements are expected Monday morning.