JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The same jury that convicted Russell Tillis last week of first-degree murder, kidnapping and dismemberment in the death of Joni Gunter was back in the courtroom Wednesday as the sentencing phase began.
The 12 men and women are hearing what is basically a miniature trial before being asked to recommend whether Tillis, 59, should be put to death for the crime or face a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
The goal of prosecution was to paint Tillis as a man who has abused women for decades and Gunter’s murder was just one of many victims.
“What happened to Joni Gunter wasn’t an isolated incident on his worst day,” Assistant State Attorney Alan Mizrahi told the jury in its opening statement. “It was his every day.”
The state called two women who testified that Tillis also abused them. The first victim was 14 years old in 2006 when he offered her a ride and sexually assaulted her.
“He went into that vacant lot he put the car in park and right then I knew it was trouble -- something bad was going to happen to me,” she said.
The second victim met Tillis in 1989 when he stopped as her car was broken down along I-75 and attempted to kidnap and rape her.
“I thought they were going to find my body down in a ditch,” she testified. “I slept with a bat beside my bed for a year. I was so afraid he would know where I live and come back to me.”
After about two hours, the prosecution rested and Tillis’ defense began working to prevent a death sentence by portraying him as a victim of violence and trauma starting as a young child.
One example given to the jury was that, as a child, Tillis was given a trailer on the family’s property and told to lock the door at night so he wouldn’t be abused by his father.
“The violence was both physical and emotional for a number of years,” clinical and forensic psychologist Jethro Toomer said. “Mr. Tillis and his brother were both aware of the violence.”
Another psychologist testified that Tillis abused drugs for decades.
The defense continued calling witnesses until 4:45 p.m. Wednesday and the jury was told to return at 9 a.m. Thursday. The court is expecting to hold closing arguments and a second jury deliberation.
According to court documents, the defense wants the jury to consider several mitigating circumstances before they recommend a sentence for Tillis. According to the filing, Tillis has three grown children, once owned his own business, is a practicing Buddhist, was a model prisoner over the five years he was incarcerated while awaiting trial.
STORY ARCHIVE: It took years to bring Tillis to trial
Tuesday’s hearing cleared way for penalty phase
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 the 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.
Ashley testified last week, sharing the heartbreaking story of Gunter’s life. She said they were moved to Jacksonville after their mother died, and some years later, Gunter ended up on the streets. When her sister disappeared, she looked for her.
“I had a feeling something was going on with her and that’s when I put it out,” Ashley Gunter said.
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.
As the penalty phase against her killer moves forward, Joni Gunter’s loved ones are remembering her.
One woman wrote online:
Joni, you made my days brighter by just being in them. You are missed so much. Just know I will protect Ashley to my dying breath. You are loved. Missing you my sun