For about 20 minutes in a Tampa courtroom on Wednesday, a jury listened to an 11-year-old boy describe what he survived three years ago: hearing his mom hit with a shotgun blast, seeing his sister struck in the head with an ax, and then feeling himself get soaked in gasoline and lit on fire.
His father, Ronnie Oneal III, is charged with committing all of these crimes. And after the 11-year-old’s harrowing testimony to prosecutors, Oneal himself got up to directly question him about it.
“Did I hurt you the night of this incident?” Oneal asked his son, known as Ronnie Oneal IV.
“Yes,” the boy replied. “You stabbed me.”
It was an unusual moment in an unusual trial. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco allowed Oneal to represent himself in his murder trial this week, determining that he was mentally fit, educated enough, and understood the consequences of such a decision, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
He is on trial for allegedly killing his 33-year-old girlfriend, Kenyatta Barron, and his 9-year-old daughter, Ron’Niveya Oneal – as well as grievously injuring his son by lighting him on fire and stabbing him. If convicted, prosecutors will seek the death sentence, the Times reported.
The spectacle of Oneal representing himself in such a high-stakes case – and then having the chance to directly question his son about the attack – was extremely unusual, legal observers noted.
“If you’re looking at this trial and you ask the question: How many times does a father cross-examine his own son and question his truth and veracity? If you were to take a million cases in the jurisprudence system of the United States, it would be less than 0000001%,” Kevin Hayslett, a criminal defense attorney, told 10 Tampa Bay.
“And the chances it would happen in a first-degree double homicide case? Just about never,” Hayslett added.
Historically, murder defendants who have represented themselves in trial have not fared well. Colin Ferguson went on trial for opening fire in a train car full of commuters leaving New York City in 1993, killing six and wounding 19. Like Oneal, he questioned his own victims in court; he was found guilty and given six consecutive life sentences. Ted Bundy, a former law student who eventually confessed to 30 homicides, represented himself at trial in Miami in 1979, where he was convicted in the murders of two Florida State University sorority members.
Oneal finds himself in a similar situation in a tragic and gruesome case. Prosecutors allege that on March 18, 2018, Oneal shot his girlfriend in their home in Riverview, a community south of Tampa, and then chased her out of the house and then beat her to death on his next-door neighbor’s property, according to the Times. He then went back into the house and killed his 9-year-old daughter, who was autistic and had difficulty walking, with a hatchet, prosecutors allege. Then, Oneal allegedly stabbed his son, doused him and the house in gasoline, and set them on fire.
As several 911 calls came in, sheriff’s deputies responded to the home and arrested Oneal. They also found the younger Oneal, then 8-years-old, stumbling out of the house with severe burns and a gaping wound in his stomach. Oneal was later adopted by one of the homicide detectives who investigated the case, the Times reported.
In the years since his arrest, Oneal was defended by court-appointed lawyers. But on the eve of his trial this month, he decided to defend himself. On Wednesday, he clutched legal documents as he strode up to a television screen on Wednesday that showed his son at a child victim resource center, sitting at a table with a gold retriever by his side. To start, he exchanged pleasantries with his son before attempting to debunk his testimony.
“How you doin’ Ronnie?” he said.
“Good,” his son replied.
“It’s good to see you, man,” Oneal said.
“Good to see you, too,” his son replied.
Oneal then sought to expose inconsistencies between his son’s testimony on Wednesday and what the boy previously told investigators – namely, that the boy “saw” Oneal kill his mom.
“Did you see me beat your mom?” Oneal asked.
“No,” his son replied.
“Did you see me shoot your mom?
Oneal’s calm, almost lawyerly, demeanor during his son’s questioning contrasted with his bizarre and impassioned opening statements two days earlier. In that oration, he accused law enforcement officials of tampering with evidence and argued that it was Barron who had attacked the children that night – and that he acted in self-defense.
“The evidence is going to show that we are under the most vicious, lying, fabricating, fictitious, government you ever seen!” Oneal screamed in the courtroom on Monday. “By the time it’s all said and done, you will see who is the mass murderers in Tampa Bay!”
The trial is expected to last through the week, the Times reported.