Judge appoints co-counsel in Russell Tillis murder trial

Tillis also facing separate trial on aggravated assault on officer charges


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A man facing two separate court cases on charges of murder and assaulting police officers will be getting a second lawyer in the murder case after the judge convinced him it was not in his best interest to represent himself.

Russell Tillis, 54, has been in jail on charges of aggravated assault on law enforcement officers since May 2015, when police said two officers were attacked with knives while they were serving Tillis with arrest warrants for violating injunctions neighbors had obtained against him.

Nine months after that arrest, investigators, acting on a tip, dug up Tillis' property and found the dismembered remains of Joni Lynn Gunter.

Tillis has been indicted on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, human trafficking and abuse of a dead body in Gunter's death.

Judge Mark Borello, who is hearing both of Tillis' cases, appointed Tillis' attorney for the aggravated assault case as co-counsel in the murder case on Tuesday.

Tillis had been considering representing himself, because he does not agree with attorney James Hernandez, who is handling the murder case. But Hernandez suggested Tuesday that Tillis' attorney in the other case, James Boyle, be appointed co-counsel.

Tillis eventually agreed to allow Boyle to handle the evidentiary phase and Hernandez the penalty phase.

Hernandez must handle the penalty phase, if Tillis is convicted, because prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty, and Boyle isn't qualified for death penalty cases.

“Both lawyers are very experienced and have been doing this a long time. The state is seeking the ultimate penalty against you,” Borello told Tillis, suggesting he should be more concerned about that than his lawyers’ “bedside manner, so to speak.”

Hernandez is Tillis' fourth attorney in the murder case. Tillis said he believes Boyle has acted in his best interest, but he said, “I will not give up my voice in this matter.”

Borello said he was not asking Tillis to do that.

“It's your life on the line,” Borello said.

Tillis' next hearing in the murder trial will be July 13. His aggravated assault trial is set for July 17.

Earlier this month, police dug again at the property Tillis once owned where Gunter's remains were found. They have not said if they found anything new.