TAMPA — The day after a Tampa jury found him guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, Ronnie Oneal III decided to let lawyers represent him as he faces a possible death sentence for the crimes.
Oneal appeared in court Tuesday morning for a hearing in advance of the penalty phase of his trial. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco asked if he wanted to let his public defenders, who had served as standby counsel throughout the trial, to step in to represent him. He said yes.
“Wise decision,” the judge said.
She explained to Oneal that the penalty phase of a capital trial is a specialized area of law. She said that his standby attorneys know what they’re doing and would listen to his concerns.
With that, Assistant Public Defenders Jennifer Spradley and Dana Herce-Fulgueira took over Oneal’s representation.
Oneal, 32, was found guilty Monday in the 2018 deaths of his girlfriend, Kenyatta Barron, and their 9-year-old daughter, Ron’Niveya Oneal, and the attempted killing of their then-8-year-old son. During the murders, he set fire to the family’s Riverview home.
Oneal insisted on handling his own defense at trial. He questioned jurors directly during a weeklong selection process, and delivered an impassioned opening statement and closing arguments. He claimed that the government distorted evidence to bolster their case. The jury was not persuaded.
When the trial resumes Wednesday, prosecutors will try to convince the same jury that Oneal’s crimes carry a number of aggravating circumstances that qualify death as an appropriate punishment. The factors they have cited include that the murders were especially heinous, atrocious or cruel. In the case of Ron’Niveya Oneal, who was physically disabled, the prosecutors have cited her young age and her vulnerability due to disability as aggravating circumstances.
The defense will be able to present evidence of what are known as mitigating circumstances, which are factors that weigh against the imposition of the death penalty. Court documents indicate that they may present evidence of past trauma Oneal endured. Witnesses may also be called to testify as to his character.
In court Tuesday, the defense lawyers said their witnesses include a psychologist who will testify about Oneal’s mental health, a man who got to know Oneal through their involvement in a community group, and a sheriff’s deputy who is expected to say Oneal has not had disciplinary problems in the three years he has been jailed.
If the jury ultimately recommends a death sentence, their decision must be unanimous. If one juror votes against the death penalty, Oneal’s sentence will be life in prison.
Because Oneal had handled his own defense in recent weeks, the attorneys for both the state and defense told the judge they had not had time to fully question all the penalty phase witnesses. The judge said she would do what she could to accommodate them, but understood they were under time constraints.
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“That is primarily due to the decisions of Mr. Oneal,” she said.