It is often said that “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” That adage was most evident this week in Florida as Ronnie Oneal III represented himself into a rapid double murder conviction. Judge Michelle Sisco reportedly told Oneal “I have to tell you, I think in another lifetime, you would have been an outstanding lawyer.” However, it was hard to discern that natural talent after Oneal yelled at jurors in his opening statement and went on to confess in open court to murder. In fairness to Sisco, she was trying again to convince Oneal to accept counsel, particularly as he moves into the sentencing phrase where he could be sentenced to death.
Oneal lashed out at the government in front of the jury for what he said were “some of the most vicious, lying, fabricating, fictitious government you ever seen.” He assured the jury “I look alone. But I am backed by a mighty God.”
The evidence against Oneal was overwhelming and chilling. He is accused of wounding his girlfriend Kenyatta Barron with a shotgun, then beating her to death. He then allegedly used a hatchet to kill his 9-year-old daughter and wounded his son, then 8, with a knife. His daughter had cerebral palsy and could not speak. He then set the house on fire.
His son saw the murders committed. When he was pulled from the house, he told police “My daddy killed my mommy.”
The most gut-wrenching moment in the trial came when Oneal cross examined his son, who a police officer has reportedly adopted. Oneal asked “Did I hurt you that night of this incident?” He son said “Yes.” Oneal then asked “How did I hurt you?” The boy simply responded, “You stabbed me.”
There was also a 911 call from Barron in which she sought help as Oneal yelled in the background.
One key element to a criminal defense is not to pronounce your client’s guilt in open court. Yet, Oneal did precisely that when he told the jury “I want you to know the actual facts. I did kill Kenyatta Brown. But I want you to tell it like it is, if you are going to tell it.”
After he was quickly convicted, Judge Sisco tried valiantly to convince Oneal to accept a lawyer, including an appeal to his vanity:
“As you are aware, it gets no more serious for any defendant in any criminal courtroom in this country than what you are facing now. I’m really going to strongly encourage you to consider allowing counsel to now step in and represent you. I have to tell you, I think in another lifetime, you would have been an outstanding lawyer. … However, as we move into penalty phase, I really am going to strongly encourage you to allow counsel to now step in and represent you.”
Oneal may still elect to do so but his decision to represent himself could shorten any appeals based on his own trial errors. The Constitution rarely protects against self-inflicted wounds and declaring that you had an incompetent lawyer is more difficult when you are that lawyer.