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Thread: Death Penalty Trial Underway for Russell David Tillis in May 2015 FL Murder of Joni Lynn Gunter

  1. #31
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    10 jurors chosen in death penalty trial of man accused in 'House of Horrors' killing

    Attorneys question first 30 jurors in the murder, kidnapping and sex trafficking trial of Russell Tillis

    By Anne Schindler
    First Coast News

    JACKSONVILLE, Fla. Jury selection in the death penalty trial of Russell Tillis got underway Monday morning, the first capital murder case in Duval County since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The 59-year-old Tillis is accused of killing and dismembering 30-year-old Joni Gunter roughly six years ago, and burying her remains in his Southside backyard.

    The high-profile case has received years of media attention, but only three of 30 potential jurors Monday had heard his name or news reports about his Southside home, which neighbors dubbed the House of Horrors.
    By days end, 10 jurors were selected, with two more jurors and four alternates needed, a process that resumes Tuesday morning.

    Tillis attorney Allison Miller spent the day questioning potential jurors about their views on the death penalty, her line of questioning reflecting just how difficult the facts of the case are.

    Tills is accused of murder, sex trafficking and abuse of a death body charges to which he has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors will also be allowed to introduce Tillis past convictions for kidnapping, attempted rape and child abuse, as well as the testimony of an adult woman who says he held her captive and raped her.

    Miller told potential jurors all those facts hypothetically and asked what they would consider appropriate punishment. Several jurors said based on those facts, they would start with death, and would need to be convinced otherwise. Others said they would want to know if the defendant showed remorse or suffered extreme childhood trauma.

    Of the 10 jurors selected Monday, seven said they were at least a 5 on a scale of 1-10 in favor of the death penalty. One answered that on a scale of 1-10, he was an 11.

    In her questioning, Miller employed whats known as The Colorado Method a defense tactic that aims to both educate and vet jurors in death penalty cases. She explained that a death verdict is never required, and is instead a personal moral decision.

    She also made each potential juror pledge not to bully -- or be bullied by other jurors during deliberations.

    "Death is never required -- not in this case, not in the worst case imaginable, Miller said. The court is satisfied with a life sentence.

    She told jurors that a mitigating factor is subjective -- anything from a glimpse between the defendant and his mom, or your own sense of mercy. It has to do with your brain, but also your heart and gut and feelings on this. And there is no right or wrong answer.

    Miller challenged prosecutors' decision to strike three Black jurors via discretionary (preemptory) challenges, asking for a race neutral justification" for their removal. Circuit Judge Mark Borello determined all were legitimately stricken, and noted defense attorneys also struck one Black juror and that both sides jointly agreed to strike another Black juror.

    The panel of 10 jurors selected Monday includes 8 white females, one black male and one white male.

    Questioning of a second panel of 30 potential jurors begins Tuesday morning at 9 am. Attorneys must still select 2 more jurors and four alternates.

    Opening statements are scheduled to begin Wednesday.

    https://www.firstcoastnews.com/artic...e-c96b21ef6a49
    "I realize this may sound harsh, but as a father and former lawman, I really don't care if it's by lethal injection, by the electric chair, firing squad, hanging, the guillotine or being fed to the lions."
    - Oklahoma Rep. Mike Christian

    "There are some people who just do not deserve to live,"
    - Rev. Richard Hawke

    "Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence"
    - Edgar Allan Poe

  2. #32
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    Grim evidence, jailhouse confession in Russell Tillis’ trial

    Woman’s dismembered body found buried in yard in 2016

    By Scott Johnson and Jennifer Ready
    News4Jax.com

    JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The long-delayed trial of Russell Tillis on charges that he killed and dismembered Joni Gunter in 2016 and then buried her in the yard of his Southside Jacksonville home began Wednesday with grim details of her death and the day ended with the playing of a jailhouse confession that Tillis now claims he made up.

    Prosecutors laid out the gruesome details of case, saying Tillis chained Gunter in his home and sold her in a sex trafficking operation. In addition to first-degree murder, Tillis is charged with kidnapping, sex trafficking and abuse of a body.

    Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty if Tillis is convicted.

    As the proceedings began, Tillis began reading a prepared statement but he was cut off by Judge Mark Borello, who asked that the statement be submitted in writing and for Tillis to be quiet as the jury was waiting to be brought in. Tillis replied, “The jury can wait."

    In the prosecution’s opening statement, Assistant State Attorney Alan Mizrahi said Gunter was killed by multiple blows to the head, consistent with wounds made by a hammer. He said that police found multiple rooms of Tillis’ home with blocked-out windows and there were thick iron chains hanging in the garage.

    Mizrahi told the jury that Tillis will claim his jailhouse confession was a “made-up drama” to get the death penalty because he was depressed and facing years in prison on a different charge, but that, “This man chillingly and amusingly describes how it’s pretty easy to dispose of a body after killing a person.”

    In his opening statement, Defense Attorney Chuck Fletcher said Tillis knew about a body on his property but that he had nothing to do with her murder. Fletcher also said Tillis would testify during the trial.

    Prosecutors portrayed Tillis as a man who would take advantage of vulnerable women, rape and even imprison them.

    "He admitted in shocking detail how he trafficked her flesh by selling her to friends so they could have sex with her for money that he profited from,” Mizrahi said.

    “I did some heroin and I fell asleep and I woke up and I was chained to the bed,” one former victim testified.

    The woman eventually escaped his imprisonment but didn’t report it to police because she was terrified and thought they wouldn’t believe her.

    Another of the first prosecution witnesses was the owner of the property who said Tillis had threatened to kill her “several times.”

    A crime scene technician testified while evidence photos were shown of the various saws, blades, tools and acids that were found in the house. There were also pages of information about women police believe Tillis tried to make contact with.

    Late in the day, a recording was played of Tillis talking to a fellow Duval County inmate who had agreed to wear a wire to record the conversation.

    "I’m killing her, but you have to cut her up,” Tillis is heard saying. “I don’t have time, man. It takes about four or five hours to do that."

    The trial began after years of postponements and delays, many the result of Tillis’ courtroom outbursts and objections to a string of defense lawyers, even trying to disqualify the judge.

    Gunter’s remains were found buried in several different spots in the yard of Tillis’ Southside Jacksonville home in 2016, according to police evidence. Officers and neighbors called it a “House of Horrors."

    At the time of the discovery of Gunter’s remains, Tillis was already in jail on unrelated charges.

    https://www.news4jax.com/news/local/...-begins-today/
    "I realize this may sound harsh, but as a father and former lawman, I really don't care if it's by lethal injection, by the electric chair, firing squad, hanging, the guillotine or being fed to the lions."
    - Oklahoma Rep. Mike Christian

    "There are some people who just do not deserve to live,"
    - Rev. Richard Hawke

    "Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence"
    - Edgar Allan Poe

  3. #33
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    Prosecutor describes ‘bizarro world’ of Russell Tillis, defense claims case ‘lacks integrity’

    Woman’s dismembered remains found buried in Tillis’ Jacksonville yard in 2016

    By Jenese Harris
    News4Jax.com

    JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The state and defense attorneys reviewed the evidence, claims and the audio of a jailhouse confession in closing arguments this morning in the trial of Russell Tillis, who is accused of first-degree murder and other charges in the Joni

    Gunter, whose dismembered remains were found buried in the yard of Tillis’ Southside home nearly five years ago.

    The jury is now deliberating whether Tillis kidnapped and killed Gunter and abused her dead body.

    “He’s trying to justify his own statements ignoring the hard facts and the hard truth,” Assistant State Attorney Alan Mizrahi said in his final comments to the jury. “Joni Gunter cannot cry out for justice anymore but her remains in the defender’s back yard will do it for you.”

    Tillis’ lawyer said the message contained in the audio recorded by another inmate wearing a wire is very different.

    “This is a case about a very despondent, depressed, suicidal individual who was looking at 30 years for the (assault) case he was in there on,” Charles Fletcher said. “Russell Tillis wasn’t caught. The state’s witness told you that this case lacks integrity from the moment it began and the State Attorney’s Office can not hide from that."

    Judge Mark Borello said he plans to ask the jury to begin deliberating after lunch. If Tillis is convicted on the murder charge, the jury will return next week to make a recommendation on whether he should be put to death for the crime or spend the rest of his life in prison.

    During three hours of testimony Thursday afternoon, Tillis said he saw Gunter for the first time when she was already dead, claiming his brother, Claude, drove to his house and showed him Gunter’s body in the trunk of his car.

    Tillis did not say his brother killed Gunter. But he said that if his brother were arrested for it, he would not testify against him. Tillis’ brother is not charged in this case and the lead detective in the case testified they never had any evidence that pointed to Tillis’ brother.

    Tillis, 59, also testified he fabricated an elaborate confession that he killed Gunter and buried her on his property. He said that he didn’t kill her and never knew how she died. Tillis said he created the fake story with a fellow Duval County inmate, who had agreed to wear a wire to record the conversation.

    “(Sammie) Evans and I cook up a story. First I tell him why I can’t go to the police and give the confession. So once I convince him that, OK, I’m telling him the truth and this is how I know where the body’s buried and this is what’s going on and this the reason why I can’t go to police, and once he understood all that, then he started looking at me a little differently, OK, let me hear your story,” Tillis said. “So I tell him my story.”

    Tillis claimed that at the time of the jailhouse confession, he thought he would spend decades in prison for a 2015 attack on police and preferred to be put to death.

    "He and I over a course of maybe three or four days, we start fabricating this murder. We were both convinced would provoke the state attorney to seek the death penalty so I didn’t end up confessing to a murder where the state didn’t end up seeking the death penalty and then I’m right back to doing 30 years in prison, I got nothing,” he said.

    Tillis testified the inmate was a little skeptical, so he provided a map.

    “I knew exactly where the body was buried, and I knew the condition of the body,” Tillis said. “I drew the map. I told him to study it and then throw the original in the toilet, make his own hand copy and told him to allege that I just told him.”

    Tillis finished his hours-long testimony by denying he killed Gunter.

    During cross-examination, Tillis refused to answer questions pertaining to Gunter’s death.

    Prosecutor: “What’s it like to use a saw to cut a woman’s head off?”

    Tillis: “I have no answer for that question either."

    Prosecutor: “Did the saw blade wear out when you were cutting her shoulders? Did you have to use multiple blades?”

    Tillis: “I believe I just told you I would not answer any questions regarding that subject.”

    It was a stark contrast to the jailhouse conversation, which is the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case against Tillis.

    “I’m killing her, but you have to cut her up,” Tillis is heard saying on audio played Wednesday in court.

    The first day of the trial ended Wednesday with the playing of the jailhouse confession that Tillis now claims he made up and the second day began with a continuation of the recording. Prosecutors played the audio recorded with a hidden microphone inside the Duval County jail where Tillis confesses to killing Gunter. At one point, when Tillis learns his property is being bulldozed, he is heard saying: “They’re fixing to unearth one of them bodies over there and then that one is probably gonna lead to the other two."

    Tillis’ property is also discussed, specifically that it was built up like a fortress with booby traps like razor blades in bushes. The defense said those were not used to keep out police but burglars.

    Before Tillis took the stand Thursday afternoon, the defense continued to argue Tillis made it all up and never killed Gunter. Defense lawyers also challenged Detective Dennis Sullivan, the homicide detective assigned to the case, on the issue of whether there were chains in Tillis’ home. That questioning followed testimony Wednesday from a woman who said Tillis, at one point, chained her to his bed.

    Defense: “Is there anything to indicate this chain -- old and heavy -- that it scratched the bed frame?"

    Sullivan: “I did not notice that. No sir.”

    On Thursday, Sullivan also revealed new information about Gunter, saying she had children and the last documented report of her being alive was in April 2015, when she was served papers about child support for her children.

    “Joni to me, in this case, was somebody who I deemed basically a forgotten victim in this,” Sullivan said on the stand.

    A forensic anthropologist testified about identifying Gunter’s remains and the medical examiner testified about determining how she died. He said she was killed by blunt impact trauma to the head.

    The medical examiner also testified that Gunter’s injuries showed she tried to defend herself against her attacker.

    As the proceedings began, Tillis began reading a prepared statement but he was cut off by Judge Borello, who asked that the statement be submitted in writing and for Tillis to be quiet as the jury was waiting to be brought in.

    Tillis replied, “The jury can wait.”

    In the prosecution’s opening statement, Assistant State Attorney Alan Mizrahi said Gunter was killed by multiple blows to the head, consistent with wounds made by a hammer. He said that police found multiple rooms of Tillis’ home with blocked-out windows and there were thick iron chains hanging in the garage.

    Mizrahi told the jury that Tillis would claim his jailhouse confession was a “made-up drama” to get the death penalty because he was depressed and facing years in prison on another different charge, but that, “this man chillingly and amusingly describes how it’s pretty easy to dispose of a body after killing a person."

    https://www.news4jax.com/news/local/...ing-arguments/
    "I realize this may sound harsh, but as a father and former lawman, I really don't care if it's by lethal injection, by the electric chair, firing squad, hanging, the guillotine or being fed to the lions."
    - Oklahoma Rep. Mike Christian

    "There are some people who just do not deserve to live,"
    - Rev. Richard Hawke

    "Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence"
    - Edgar Allan Poe

  4. #34
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    Judge denies request for delay in Russell Tillis death penalty trial

    Tillis' attorney wants to conduct psychological testing of Tillis specifically for the penalty phase

    Circuit Judge Mark Borello denied a motion Monday to continue the penalty phase in Russell Tillis death penalty case.

    That request came Friday from Tillis attorney Donald Mairs who wants to conduct psychological testing of Tillis specifically for the penalty phase. Tillis has previously been very resistant of participating in whats known as mitigation, gathering information that might prompt a jury to reach a verdict of life rather than death.

    A jury found Tillis guilty Friday of first-degree murder, kidnapping and the abuse of a dead human body. The charges stem from the discovery of the dismembered remains of 30-year-old Joni Gunter in Tillis Southside backyard in 2015.

    Specifically, Mairs wants to conduct a PET scan of Tillis brain and have it analyzed by a neurologist. He said that analysis would be available within 30 days.

    But, prosecutor Alan Mizrahi said the case should not be delayed. He said they had assured the jury the penalty phase would be this week, and it should be this week.

    Borello denied the request saying he understood the request for delay was no fault of the defense team. He has previously noted on the record that Tillis himself is responsible for most of the delays in this 4-year-old case.

    The penalty phase of the trial functions as a separate trial beginning this week. Jurors will be asked to look at aggravators and mitigators and determine whether Tillis deserves the death penalty or life in prison.

    (source: firstcoastnews.com)
    "I realize this may sound harsh, but as a father and former lawman, I really don't care if it's by lethal injection, by the electric chair, firing squad, hanging, the guillotine or being fed to the lions."
    - Oklahoma Rep. Mike Christian

    "There are some people who just do not deserve to live,"
    - Rev. Richard Hawke

    "Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence"
    - Edgar Allan Poe

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