TAMPA — Ronnie Oneal III is a murderer, a jury decided Monday.
After a week of testimony, the panel of nine men and three women took 4 ½ hours to find Oneal guilty of two counts of first-degree murder in the 2018 slayings of his girlfriend and their 9-year-old daughter, and the attempted murder of their then-8-year-old son.
The jury also convicted Oneal of arson for setting fire to the family’s Riverview home, along with two counts of aggravated child abuse. The case will now enter a penalty phase, which could last the rest of the week. Prosecutors will ask the same jury to recommend a death sentence.
Oneal showed no reaction as the verdict was read just after 7 p.m.
Jurors were told to return to court Wednesday. After they filed out of the courtroom, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco encouraged Oneal to discontinue representing himself.
“It’s no more serious for any defendant in any criminal courtroom in this country than what you are facing now,” the judge said. “I respect the fact that you chose to represent yourself. I have to tell you, I think in another lifetime, you would have been an outstanding lawyer. ... However, as we move into penalty phase, I really am going to strongly encourage you to allow counsel to now step in and represent you.”
Oneal nodded, but voiced no immediate decision.
In a fiery, hourlong closing argument Monday morning that echoed his vociferous opening a week earlier, Oneal reiterated to the jury his claims that government officials distorted evidence to bolster the case against him.
“Like I told you earlier, you will know the truth whether in this trial or the next one!” Oneal yelled. “If you think I’m here to play around with y’all, g--damn it, I’m not!”
The judge advised Oneal not to use profanities.
Late the night of March 18, 2018, prosecutors say Oneal attacked his girlfriend, Kenyatta Barron, in their home, wounding her with a shotgun blast to her shoulder. Barron, 33, dialed 911 from a cell phone.
The call was the centerpiece of the state’s case. Barron’s screams echoed in the cavernous courtroom throughout the trial.
Assistant State Attorney Ronald Gale once again played snippets of the call in his closing argument Monday, telling the jury to listen closely.
“Every time you listen to this, you’ll hear something new,” Gale said.
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The prosecutor noted moments when Oneal can be heard telling Barron that “the kids are mine now, bitch.” He can be heard yelling at his son, telling him to sit down “before I kill you.” He can be heard telling the boy to say “Allahu Akbar” and the boy repeating the same.
He can be heard telling the boy to go get a knife, Gale said. Barron can be heard screaming before Oneal asks the boy where the knife is. The boy can then be heard crying, Gale said.
It was then that Barron, hysterical and bleeding, ran out through the front door and into a neighbor’s yard. Oneal chased her. The recording captured her cries as Oneal uttered expletives amid a series of thumping sounds.
A neighbor opened a front door to see Oneal beating Barron with the broken shotgun.
“You don’t understand,” Oneal told him. “She killed me.”
He then ran back to his own home, prosecutors said. Inside, he dragged his 9-year-old daughter, Ron’Niveya Oneal, from her bedroom. The girl was autistic and had cerebral palsy and could not talk. Her father picked up a hatchet, striking her repeatedly in the head and neck, the state said. He then attacked his 8-year-old son, stabbing and slashing him with a knife. Amid the mayhem, Oneal spread gasoline throughout the house and set it ablaze.
The boy staggered out of the garage, a gaping wound in his belly, smoke rising from his body.
The elder Oneal followed close behind, his shirt and sneakers stained with his family’s blood.
Oneal, 32, insisted on representing himself in the high-stakes trial, facing off alone against a trio of highly experienced and skilled state prosecutors. It was, at times, a rocky venture. He fumbled through the jury selection process and sometimes became visibly frustrated when a judge made rulings against him. He captivated a crowded courtroom with his histrionic opening statement, shouting throughout. He suggested that he killed Barron in self-defense after she attacked their children.
His performance was smoother as the trial progressed. As state witnesses trooped into the courtroom one after another, he exhibited a soft-spoken style of cross examination, asking the kind of questions a lawyer would.
A trio of public defenders sat near Oneal. He occasionally appeared to listen to whispered advice. The attorneys also sometimes spoke to the judge on his behalf.
Spectators packed a set of long courtroom benches the day the surviving son testified. The child has since been adopted by one of the homicide detectives who assisted in the investigation.
Now on the cusp of adolescence, the boy spoke through a remote video feed, his adoptive mother and a therapy dog nearby as he described his memory of the night his biological mother and sister were murdered.
The elder Oneal spent time scrutinizing his account, highlighting inconsistencies in what he’d previously told investigators.
But the boy’s story was largely the same as that told by prosecutors.
“Did I hurt you that night?” the elder Oneal asked him at one point.
“Yes,” the boy said.
“I did? How did I hurt you?”
“You stabbed me.”
Oneal asserted that the boy may have been told what to say.
Much of his closing focused on written records of phone calls he and Barron made the night of the killings. Some logs did not show a record of the 911 call Barron made that night, or another that Oneal made minutes later. That, Oneal said, was evidence that investigators tampered with the records.
He also highlighted the testimony of a teenage neighbor, who said he saw Oneal chase Barron from their home and hit her three times with a shotgun. Oneal said Barron’s injuries were too severe to have been inflicted by just three blows.
He suggested, with no evidence, that authorities put additional injuries on Barron’s body, that they manipulated the 911 recording to make it sound like he hit her 10 to 15 times, that they altered the audio to make it sound like he said things he never said.
The prosecutor called Oneal’s claims absurd.
“This is where the conspiracy theories fail,” Gale said. “Because they don’t make any sense.”