Judge denies motion to keep state from seeking death penalty for Russell Tillis

Tillis was convicted Friday of first-degree murder and other charges in death of Joni Gunter

Russell Tillis enters the courtroom Friday for closing arguments in his trial. (Pool/WJXT)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A judge on Tuesday denied a defense motion aimed at blocking the State Attorney’s Office from seeking the death penalty for Russell Tillis when the penalty phase of his trial begins on Wednesday.

Tillis, 59, was convicted Friday of first-degree murder, kidnapping and dismemberment charges in the death of Joni Gunter, whose remains were found buried on Tillis’ property nearly five years ago.

At a minimum, Tillis faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

In their motion and during Tuesday’s hearing, defense attorneys contended “there was a problem” with the guilty verdict in that the jury did not specify if Tillis killed Gunter himself or helped someone else.

But Judge Mark Borello sided with the state’s argument that the jury’s verdict was for premeditated murder.

A separate motion from Tillis to remove his lead defense attorney was not discussed.

The two sides hashed out jury instructions for the penalty phase of the Tillis trial. The proceedings will include lists of aggravating and mitigating circumstances in the case, which will inform jurors’ decision.

Among the aggravating circumstances for jurors to consider will be that Gunter’s murder was “heinous, cruel and atrocious,” as well as being “cold and calculated.”

Meanwhile, they’ll have to weigh mitigating circumstances, including Tillis’ age and his mental state.

The state is expected to present four witnesses: Gunter’s sister, Ashley, and her grandmother, along with two women who were abused by Tillis when they were children.

Defense attorneys anticipate calling several expert witnesses, who are expected to discuss Tillis’ state of mind, and a school teacher from the West Coast.

The case is expected to be given to the jury on Thursday.