Russell Tillis avoids death penalty for Joni Gunter’s murder

Tillis, 59, guilty of kidnapping and killing 30-year-old Gunter

A jury of 12 men and women on Thursday recommended a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for Russell Tillis, the man convicted in the murder and dismemberment of Joni Gunter.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A jury of 12 men and women on Thursday did not unanimously recommend the death penalty for Russell Tillis, the man convicted in the murder and dismemberment of Joni Gunter. That means, according to Florida law, he will receive a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

Before the decision was made, prosecutors argued that Tillis, 59, has a long history of victimizing women and therefore deserved to go to Death Row. Tillis’ defense argued that he had a violent and traumatic childhood, deserves mercy, and should be given life without parole.

The jury, who convicted Tillis last week of first-degree murder, kidnapping and dismemberment in Gunter’s death, heard what was basically a miniature trial before being asked to recommend whether Tillis should be put to death for the crime or face a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

The jury began deliberations just after 2 p.m. and spent more than four hours in discussions. The majority of the jurors (9-3) voted in favor of the death penalty, but the vote was not unanimous, therefore, Tillis can not be sentenced to death, according to Florida law.

When asked if he felt as though Gunter’s family received justice, Alan Mizrahi, the assistant state attorney, responded: “I don’t want to speak for them, but my conversation afterward, the grandmother appeared to be satisfied that the verdict and the trial were over, and that the verdict would ensure that Russell Tillis would never leave the Florida state prison system.”

The judge said there will be an imposition of the sentence during the week of May 17.

Before the jury began deliberations, it first heard from Shannon Brinkley, the mother of one of Tillis’ sons Nathan, who also testified Thursday morning.

Brinkley testified that she and Tillis had a relationship and a child when she was 17 living in California but she ended the relationship after he started selling drugs when they were together. She also said she heard other things about his past that scared her, such as the apparent abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his father.

She also testified that as an older child, Tillis told her he would drive around with other family members and beat up Black people in Florida. They were then paid by his grandfather for the acts, she said.

Nathan Tillis also testified and said the first time he ever spoke with his father he was 12 years old. Nathan Tillis said his father told him not to be like him.

Closing arguments wrapped up late Thursday morning before the jury was given instructions ahead of their deliberation.

The proceedings included lists of aggravating and mitigating circumstances in the case to inform the jurors’ decision. Among the aggravating circumstances for jurors to consider -- whether Gunter’s murder was “heinous, cruel and atrocious,” as well as being “cold and calculated.”

They also weighed mitigating circumstances, including Tillis’ age and his mental state.

VIDEO: Prosecutors say Russell Tillis, the man convicted in the murder and dismemberment of Joni Gunter, has a long history of victimizing women and therefore deserves to go to Death Row.

During witness testimony Wednesday, the goal of the 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.

STORY ARCHIVE: It took years to bring Tillis to trial

“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.

According to court documents, the defense wanted 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 and was a model prisoner over the five years he was incarcerated while awaiting trial.

As the sentencing phase unfolded, Joni Gunter’s sister, Ashley, reflected on happy memories. She also took the stand Wednesday.

“Joni will never get to see her niece grow up. Her name is going to be Serenity Hazel Lynn,” Ashley Gunter said. “I miss her laughter, and I miss seeing her walking down the street. Her voice. Her singing me to sleep.”

About the Authors:

Corley Peel is a Texas native and Texas Tech graduate who covered big stories in Joplin, Missouri, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Jacksonville, Florida before returning to the Lone Star State. When not reporting, Corley enjoys hot yoga, Tech Football, and finding the best tacos in town.

Scott is a multi-Emmy Award Winning Anchor and Reporter, who also hosts the “Going Ringside With The Local Station” Podcast. Scott has been a journalist for 25 years, covering stories including six presidential elections, multiple space shuttle launches and dozens of high-profile murder trials.