TAMPA — The boy is almost 12. He’s about to start sixth grade. His favorite subject is science, and he likes learning about space. He plays Xbox games like Call of Duty and Rocket League. He wants to be an actor when he grows up. He’s gotten to know a golden retriever named Tibet.
On Wednesday, the boy known as Ronnie Oneal IV appeared on a TV screen and calmly told a jury in a Tampa courtroom about the night three years ago when authorities say his father murdered his mother and sister and tried to kill him, too.
The boy was at once a witness whose testimony is crucial to the case against Ronnie Oneal III and a victim deemed so vulnerable that he couldn’t be in the same room with him.
The elder Oneal is representing himself in his murder trial. During the boy’s testimony, he was allowed to ask him questions.
But there was no drama, no meanness, no hurtful or inappropriate comments.
Oneal instead treated the witness with the kind of respect and attention a lawyer would, while highlighting a series of inconsistencies between the boy’s courtroom testimony and what he’d previously told investigators.
Jurors watched the child intently, along with a crowd of spectators.
The boy sat at the end of a brown table in a small room at Mary Lee’s House, a Tampa organization that helps victims of child abuse. His adoptive mother and a therapy dog handler sat behind him. Occasionally, he leaned down to pet Tibet, the dog. He kept his arms folded on the table, sometimes resting his chin on his wrists. Sometimes he leaned back and touched his face. He spoke softly, his answers short.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco, who is overseeing the trial expected to last most of this week, asked him about himself and about whether he understood what it means to tell the truth.
“If I were to tell you that Tibet is actually a Persian cat, would that be the truth or a lie?” the judge asked.
“A lie,” he answered.
He raised a hand and swore to only tell the truth.
Assistant State Attorney Ronald Gale asked him about the night of March 18, 2018.
This is what he said:
He was sitting in his bedroom when he saw and heard his mom and dad arguing. He heard screaming. In the next room, he could see his dad holding a shotgun.
His mom, Kenyatta Barron, ran into his sister’s room, next to his own, and hid in the closet. His father followed with the shotgun in hand.
His sister, Ron’Niveya Oneal, was autistic and had a disability that made it difficult for her to walk. She used a wheelchair, he said.
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He stayed in his room. His sister was on her bed.
His dad asked him to walk around and say some words. They were “Allahu Akbar.”
He walked into the living room and did as he was told. He heard a single shotgun blast. His father asked him to get a knife from the garage. He looked, but couldn’t find one.
He saw his mother stumble past. She went out the front door. He couldn’t remember if she was saying anything. His father chased her. He still had the shotgun.
The boy didn’t go outside. He didn’t hear anything. His father came back a minute later, went to the garage and got an axe. His father dragged his sister into his parents’ room. He saw his father hit his sister in the head with the axe. She cried. He saw blood. She later stopped crying.
He saw his father spread gasoline throughout the house, he said. He saw him use a match to light a tissue. His father then went to the garage and he followed.
“He put me on the ground,” the boy said. “And he had his foot on top of me. And he was holding me down. And he was lighting a match with the tissue. And then he threw it down. And, um ...”
The boy trailed off.
He remembered going back in the house. He remembered coming outside and seeing flashing lights.
Emergency workers and sheriff’s deputies previously testified that the boy staggered from the home with burns on his body and a gaping wound in his abdomen.
“Do you still see doctors for your injuries,” Gale asked.
The boy told the jury he’d been adopted a few months after the crime by a detective who works for the Hillsborough sheriff’s office.
Ronnie Oneal III entered the video frame for cross examination. He asked how the boy was doing.
“Good,” the boy said.
“It’s good to see you, man,” Oneal said.
“It’s good to see you, too,” the boy said.
Leaning forward, at times taking long pauses to read notes and transcripts, Oneal probed a number of inconsistencies between his testimony and things he had previously told investigators. He asked if he remembered going to football games with a detective. The boy said he did. He asked if they talked about the case. The boy said they did not.
“Did you see me beat your mom?” Oneal asked.
“Did you see me shoot your mom?”
Oneal referenced a series of statements the boy made to a detective and a forensic investigator, including a statement that he “saw everything,” and whether he remembered saying that. The boy said he did not.
The boy was asked if he remembered telling a detective that his dad did not hurt him. He said he did not.
He was asked if he remembered telling a detective that his sister was hurt before his mother was shot. He said he did not.
As Oneal continued, the boy sometimes made lengthy pauses before answering. A few times, the judge had to tell him to answer. He leaned back occasionally. He rubbed his chin. But he remained composed.
At the end, the prosecutor asked more questions, noting that the boy has spoken to numerous people since the attack, and that his first interview with a detective occurred as he lay in a hospital bed, with tubes affixed to his body.
“This all happened when you were 8 years old?” Gale asked.