Jurors to consider death penalty for Ronnie Oneal III: ‘A human life is at stake.’

Defense lawyers cited childhood abuse, a prior shooting, and mental health problems to argue against a death sentence.
Ronnie Oneal III appears in court Monday during his trial in the slayings of his girlfriend and daughter.
Ronnie Oneal III appears in court Monday during his trial in the slayings of his girlfriend and daughter. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published June 23, 2021|Updated June 23, 2021

TAMPA — A day after Ronnie Oneal III abandoned his efforts to represent himself in court, a team of defense lawyers asked a jury to spare him from a possible death sentence.

In contrast to his antics in the trial’s first phase, Oneal sat quietly Wednesday at a defense table. His three public defenders for the first time addressed the nine men and three women who found Oneal guilty Monday of two counts of first-degree murder in the 2018 slayings of his girlfriend and their 9-year-old daughter.

Assistant Public Defender Dana Herce-Fulgueira told the panel that Oneal had exercised a constitutional right to represent himself in the trial’s first phase. She asked the jurors to refrain from letting this — and the fact Oneal has changed his mind on representation — influence their deliberations or their verdict.

“The decision you are about to make is now an individual decision,” Herce-Fulgueira said. “It’s a personal decision because a human life is at stake. The decision is probably the most important decision you’ll ever make, as it should be when a human life is at stake.”

Ronnie Oneal III is walked out of the courtroom at George E. Edgecomb Courthouse in Tampa after a jury found him guilty on Monday of murdering his girlfriend, their daughter and attempting to kill his son.
Ronnie Oneal III is walked out of the courtroom at George E. Edgecomb Courthouse in Tampa after a jury found him guilty on Monday of murdering his girlfriend, their daughter and attempting to kill his son. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Related: Ronnie Oneal III accepts lawyers for death penalty phase

The defense cited factors that could weigh against the death penalty. They include childhood abuse Oneal endured, an incident in which he was the victim of a random shooting, and mental health problems.

When he was 5, Oneal was left alone with a group of extended relatives, who sexually abused him, the lawyer said. No one was ever held criminally responsible for it. Oneal never received any kind of therapy.

A substantial focus was Oneal’s involvement in the Nation of Islam and a related local group known as Build Your Community.

Known as the BYC, the group would visit impoverished neighborhoods in Tampa to mentor youth, train kids in boxing and pick up trash. Members said their goal was to prevent community violence.

One of the group’s leaders, Jihad Mohammad, recalled meeting Oneal in 2010 at an east Tampa community center. Oneal was interested Islam and began taking classes on religion and self improvement. He became an enthusiastic BYC member, visiting inner-city areas with the group to promote peace.

Five months before the killings, Oneal was wounded in a random drive-by shooting while attending a BYC event in the Robles Park area of Tampa. His injuries were described as life threatening. He spent time in a hospital and took months to recover.

Oneal later spoke about the shooting in a radio appearance with other BYC members on Tampa station WTMP. The defense played a recording of the show in court. In it, Oneal describes how the shooting reaffirmed his commitment to working to prevent violence. He said that he “died four times” during surgery.”

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“I knew that God had me,” he said.

Mohammad was asked what Oneal’s demeanor was like as he recovered.

“Love,” he said. “I never heard him raise his voice. In the presence of people, it was always love.”

Iesha Robinson had a son with Oneal in 2016 while he was living apart from Barron and his other children. Robinson described him as an involved father who still visits and writes to his son.

Herce-Fulgueira told the jury that Oneal developed post-traumatic stress disorder. A psychologist is expected to testify that he also has a delusional disorder that includes a preoccupation with religious themes.

His biological father testified about his own struggles with mental illness, including a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Lawyers suggested Oneal may have a genetic predisposition to mental illness.

“We ask,” Herce-Fulgueira said, “that you remember that the very least that can happen to Mr. Oneal after this is done is that he will spend the rest of his life in prison — every day, every minute, every second of his life in prison.”

Related: Ronnie Oneal III found guilty in Riverview family slayings

Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon emphasized the suffering of the victims. He played, once again, a recording of Kenyatta Barron’s 911 call from the night she died. Jurors again heard her screams and desperate pleas for help after she’d been shot with a shotgun and before Oneal beat her to death.

“The last moments that she spent on this earth were spent suffering,” Harmon said.

On a TV screen, Harmon displayed a photo of Ron’niveya Oneal. In it, the girl wears a pink shirt with a large white heart on it and the words “boy, bye.” She was born premature, he said, and had difficulty walking due to cerebral palsy. She was also diagnosed with autism and could not talk, but had learned to communicate through sign language.

Her condition, the prosecutor noted, did not prevent her from experiencing pain.

Her father killed her with blows from a hatchet before setting her body on fire.

Several of Barron’s family members read statements. They spoke of a woman who was attending college, who was devoted to her children, who wrote poetry and wanted to write a book about her life. They spoke of Ron’Niveya, a girl who liked to eat grapes and Oreo cookies, who would grab her aunt’s hand when she wanted to be picked up.

“Celebrating their birthdays and holidays at the grave sites is one of the hardest things I never thought I’d have to do,” said Daisatta Barron, Kenyatta’s sister.

“The amount of pain I’m in, especially emotionally, has prevented me from eating and sleeping properly,” said her mother, Carrie Lloyd. “There has been an unfillable hole in my heart since that horrible night.”

In anticipation of the defense arguments, Harmon described Oneal as growing up with good parents, as a good student who played high school sports. He maintained steady employment, and was always known as a happy, upbeat and positive person, the prosecutor said.

“The evidence will prove to you, beyond any doubt, that there is only one right, fair and just sentence in this case,” Harmon said. “That sentence is death.”