Years after body found, Russell Tillis goes on trial for murder

Tillis charged in kidnap, murder, dismemberment of woman whose remains were unearthed in his backyard

Tillis charged in kidnap, murder, dismemberment of woman whose remains were unearthed in his backyard.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Nearly five years after the remains of a 30-year-old woman were found in the backyard of his home, jury selection began Monday in the trial of Russell Tillis.

Tillis, 59, is charged in the kidnapping, first-degree murder and dismemberment of Joni Gunter. Police said the woman’s remains were unearthed in the backyard of Tillis’ Southside home in 2016 while Tillis was in jail on unrelated charges.

Some police officers have described Russell Tillis’ home as a house of horrors. Evidence photos show a collection of saws, containers of acid, booby traps and razer blades wedged into trees on the property. Gunter’s remains were identified using DNA analysis conducted by forensic specialists at the University of North Texas, police said.

In the morning session, only three of 30 potential jurors said they had heard about the Tillis case. They spend the afternoon being questioned by both prosecutors and defense lawyers in the case. A second pool of 30 jurors will be questioned on Tuesday.

Prosecutors have indicated that if Tillis is convicted, they will seek the death penalty.

Jacksonville police said they found Joni Gunter's dismembered body buried in the back yard of Russell Tillis' Southside home. (WJXT)

Last week, his current defense attorney asked for a delay in the trial, claiming Tillis won’t get a fair trial because of the pandemic. That motion, like dozens over the last four years, was denied.

The case has dragged on as Tillis has complained about his lawyers and filed repeated motions to have them taken off the case. The two who are defending him now are numbers 11 and 12.

Defense motions to block the prosecution from seeking the death penalty and another motion to move the trial to Miami-Dade County were recently denied.

Tillis previously filed another motion to represent himself and to have Judge Mark Borello removed. They were both rejected.

The defense also filed notice that it will raise Tillis’ “extreme mental illness” at trial. The notice says Tillis tried to kill himself in jail and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his incarceration.

Legal analysis

Attorney Randy Reep, who is not affiliated with the case, told News4Jax that the state and the defense attorneys will be looking for different types of jurors.

“The state is going to be looking for people who are open-minded not only to the facts of the case but the idea that this is a death penalty case,” Reep said. “(Defense attorneys) are going to be looking for people that are prone to pro-life concepts whether it be religious background or another reason that they would be amenable to not invoking or applying the death penalty.”

Each of the 30 prospective jurors was asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how strongly they feel about the death penalty. Most answered “5.”

If the defense doesn’t feel they can get a not-guilty plea, they’ll be hoping to get a sentence recommendation of life in prison rather than the death penalty.

Once seated, the jury will have a large volume of physical evidence to consider and opposing theories as to who was responsible for Gunter’s death.

About the Authors:

Veteran journalist and Emmy Award winning anchor

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013. She reports for and anchors The Morning Show.