JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – One of the first 10 jurors selected to serve in the murder trial of Russell Tillis was excused Tuesday after writing a letter to the judge.
The contents of the letter were not immediately clear, but the judge and Tillis’ attorney noted the juror was very upset.
The juror’s surprise dismissal came on the second day of jury selection for the trial of Tillis, who 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.
Later on Tuesday, the final 12 jurors, along with three alternates, were seated. The jury includes 11 white women, three white men, and one black man.
The jury will now have a large volume of physical evidence to consider and opposing theories as to who was responsible for Gunter’s death when the trial begins Wednesday at 9 a.m.
Some police officers have described Tillis’ home as a house of horrors. Evidence photos show a collection of saws, containers of acid, booby traps and razor 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.
Prosecutors have indicated that if Tillis is convicted, they will seek the death penalty.
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.
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.”
If the defense doesn’t feel they can get a not-guilty verdict, they’ll be hoping to get a sentence recommendation of life in prison rather than the death penalty.