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Jury: Life sentence for Ronnie Oneal III in Riverview slayings

The panel deliberated three hours Friday before deciding against a death sentence.
Ronnie Oneal III reacts to closing arguments during the penalty phase of his murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Friday in Tampa.
Ronnie Oneal III reacts to closing arguments during the penalty phase of his murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Friday in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Jun. 25
Updated Jun. 25

TAMPA — For the monstrous slayings of his girlfriend and their 9-year-old daughter, Ronnie Oneal III should spend the rest of his life in prison, a jury decided Friday.

After a three-week trial, the panel of nine men and three women deliberated a little more than three hours before deciding against a death sentence. The aggravating circumstances in the case did not outweigh the mitigating circumstances, the jury found.

The verdict means Oneal will receive a life sentence. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco set a date of July 23 for a formal sentencing hearing.

Oneal showed no reaction as the decision was read.

The family of Kenyatta Barron, whom he shot and viciously beat to death, said they’d hoped for a death sentence, but they were satisfied he would never be free again.

“He’s going to be so miserable behind those bars, he’s going to wish he was dead,” said Barron’s mother, Carrie Lloyd.

“Either way, I still feel like it’s a win,” said Daisatta Barron, the victim’s sister. “Because he does not leave out of that prison, wherever he’s taken, unless it’s in a box.”

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, whose office had sought a death sentence for Oneal, declined to comment as the prosecution team left court. Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt, whose office handled the defense in the trial’s penalty phase, likewise did not comment.

The decision concluded an unusual three-week trial that drew international attention for its high stakes, a surviving child victim who recounted his memory of the night his father murdered his mother and sister, and the novelty of a defendant who insisted on representing himself through most of it.

In closing arguments Friday, a prosecutor emphasized the heinousness and cruelty of Oneal’s crimes and the suffering he inflicted. A defense lawyer implored the panel to spare Oneal’s life.

“This is not a decision on whether Mr. Oneal needs to be punished for his crime,” Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Spradley told the jury. “You made that decision with your verdict. He will be punished.”

As the lawyers spoke, Oneal studiously doodled on note paper. He flashed handwritten signs toward news cameras and courtroom spectators. One read “Love U.” Another read “Only no sin cast first stone.”

Ronnie Oneal III holds up a sign that reads "Love U" to the public gallery during the penalty phase of his murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Friday in Tampa.
Ronnie Oneal III holds up a sign that reads "Love U" to the public gallery during the penalty phase of his murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Friday in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

The same jury found Oneal guilty Monday of first-degree murder and several other charges. The crimes occurred the night of March 18, 2018, at the family’s home on Pike Lake Drive in Riverview. Oneal twice shot Barron with a shotgun before she fled outside to a neighbor’s yard, where Oneal beat her to death.

In his closing argument, Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon walked the jury through a night of horror, playing a recording of a 911 call that Barron made as she was killed.

In the call, she can be heard pleading for help, her voice increasingly hysterical, while Oneal yells threats, obscenities and “Allahu Akbar.”

“This defendant had no pity for her, no sympathy for her,” Harmon said. “What you heard in that call was an utter indifference to the suffering of Kenyatta Barron.”

Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon points at Ronnie Oneal III during his closing argument in Oneal’s murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Friday in Tampa.
Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon points at Ronnie Oneal III during his closing argument in Oneal’s murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Friday in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

After bludgeoning her with the shotgun, Oneal ran back to his own home. Inside, prosecutors said, he grabbed his daughter, Ron’Niveya Oneal, and dragged her into a master bedroom. The girl had cerebral palsy, could not talk and was diagnosed with autism. He used a hatchet to hack her to death.

“She wouldn’t have been able like her mother to plead for her life,” Harmon said. “She wouldn’t have been able to say ‘daddy, stop, please stop.’ She was completely and totally helpless and at the mercy of that defendant.”

Oneal also attacked his 8-year-old son, Ronnie Oneal IV, using a knife to stab and slash him. He spread gasoline throughout the house and set it ablaze.

The boy survived the attack and was a key witness in the trial.

Related: Drama, horror in Tampa courtroom as murder trial opens
Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Spradley gives her closing argument in Ronnie Oneal III’s murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Friday in Tampa.
Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Spradley gives her closing argument in Ronnie Oneal III’s murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Friday in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

The penalty phase concluded after defense lawyers spent the better part of two days making a portrait of a man the jury had only previously known through his words and unpredictable courtroom antics.

From his mother, his brother and friends, jurors were told Oneal was sexually abused at age 5 at the hands of extended relatives and that he never knew who his biological father was until adulthood. They also were told he grew up in a stable home, held steady jobs and cared for his family.

As a child he sang in a church choir. He played football at East Bay High School and was involved in the Reserve Officer Training Corps. The jury saw pictures of him in football uniforms, a red graduation cap and gown, and posing in a tuxedo on prom night.

He struggled in school, but managed to graduate. He tried to join the U.S. Marine Corps, but repeatedly failed an entrance exam. He liked music, wrote his own songs and performed as in a hip-hop duo. He worked in a casino and later as a truck driver.

As an adult, he gravitated to the Nation of Islam and became part of a group called Build Your Community, which advocated against guns and inner-city violence. Five months before the murders, he was wounded in a random drive-by shooting at an event in Tampa. He flatlined four times during surgery, his mother said.

Scot Machlus, a forensic psychologist, testified that the shooting and childhood abuse led Oneal to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. He also has a delusional disorder, the psychologist said.

Family spoke of him as a child “talking to God” while standing on roofs and in trees. As an adult, Oneal developed grandiose beliefs, Machlus said. He believed he was “ordained by God,” that he was invincible. He compared himself to Malcolm X. He believed that he was targeted by agents of Islam, the CIA and the FBI.

In jail, he spoke of people trying to kill him, of jail staff trying to poison his food and of seeing energy waves.

On cross examination, Harmon criticized the psychologist’s analysis, saying that much of it was based on things Oneal had told mental health professionals.

Oneal does not believe he is mentally ill, Machlus said. He does not take medication.

Oneal was allowed to handle his own defense in the first phase of his trial. He was at times boisterous, and at times frustrated. But he nevertheless appeared lucid and spoke coherently throughout.

The jury appeared to heed the words of his defense lawyers, who urged them to consider the totality of his life and experiences.

“Ronnie Oneal is more than the worst thing he’s ever done,” Spradley said. “He’s a human being who’s committed a horrible crime. But his life is worthy of mercy.”

Ronnie Oneal III looks at his family following the jury's recommendation for a life sentence in his murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Friday, June 25, 2021 in Tampa.
Ronnie Oneal III looks at his family following the jury's recommendation for a life sentence in his murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Friday, June 25, 2021 in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]