The boy is almost twelve years old. He is about to begin sixth grade. Science is his favorite subject, and he enjoys learning about space. He enjoys playing Xbox games such as Call of Duty and Rocket League. When he grows up, he wants to be an actor. Tibet, a golden retriever, has become a friend of his.
On Wednesday, the boy known as Ronnie Oneal IV appeared on a TV screen and calmly told a jury in a Tampa courtroom about the night three years ago when his father allegedly murdered his mother and sister and attempted to murder him as well.
The boy was both a witness whose testimony was critical to the prosecution’s case against Ronnie Oneal III and a victim deemed so vulnerable that he couldn’t be in the same room with him.
In his murder trial, the elder Oneal is representing himself. He was permitted to question the boy during his testimony. However, there was no drama, no meanness, and no hurtful or inappropriate remarks.
Oneal is accused of two counts of first-degree murder, one count of first-degree attempted murder, one count of arson, and one count of resisting arrest without violence.
Instead, Oneal treated the witness with the respect and attention that a lawyer would, while pointing out a number of discrepancies between the boy’s courtroom testimony and what he’d previously told investigators.
Jurors and a large crowd of onlookers kept a close eye on the child.
The boy sat at the far end of a brown table in a small room at Mary Lee’s House, a Tampa-based organization that assists child abuse victims. Behind him sat his adoptive mother and a service dog handler. He leaned down from time to time to pet Tibet, the dog. He sat with his arms folded on the table, occasionally resting his chin on his wrists. He occasionally leaned back and touched his face. He spoke softly, and his responses were brief.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco, who is presiding over the trial, questioned him about himself and whether he understood what it meant to tell the truth.
“Would it be true or false if I told you that Tibet is actually a Persian cat?” the judge inquired. “A lie,” he replied.
He raised his hand and swore that he would only tell the truth.
Then, Assistant State Attorney Ronald Gale questioned him about the March 18, 2018 incident.
Here’s what he said:
He was sitting in his bedroom when he noticed and heard his parents arguing. He could hear screams. He could see his father holding a shotgun in the next room.
Kenyatta Barron, his mother, dashed into his sister’s room, next to his own, and hid in the closet. With the shotgun in hand, his father followed. Ron’Niveya Oneal, his sister, was autistic and had a disability that made it difficult for her to walk. He stated that she was in a wheelchair. He remained in his room. His sister was sleeping in her bed.
His father instructed him to walk around and say a few words. They yelled, “Allahu Akbar.”
He entered the living room and did as he was instructed. He only heard one shotgun blast. His father asked him to go to the garage and get a knife. He looked but couldn’t find anything.
He noticed his mother stumble by. She exited through the front door. He couldn’t recall her saying anything. His father chased after her. He still had the shotgun in his possession.
The boy did not venture outside. He was deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly de His father returned a minute later, went to the garage, and returned with an axe. His father dragged his sister into the room with his parents. He witnessed his father striking his sister in the head with the axe. She sobbed. He noticed blood. She eventually stopped crying.
He saw his father strew gasoline all over the house, he claimed. He saw him light a tissue with a match. He then followed his father to the garage. “He threw me to the ground,” the boy explained. “And he was standing on top of me. And he was squeezing me. He was also lighting a match with a tissue. He then threw it down. And, uh…
The boy’s voice trailed off. He remembered returning to the house. He recalls walking outside and seeing flashing lights.
Previously, emergency personnel and sheriff’s deputies testified that the boy staggered out of the house with burns on his body and a gaping wound in his abdomen.
Gale inquired, “Do you still see doctors for your injuries?”
“Yes.” The boy told the jury that he was adopted a few months after the crime by a detective with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Ronnie Oneal III was brought into the video frame for cross examination. He inquired about the boy’s well-being.
“Good,” the youngster said. “Nice to see you, man,” Oneal said. “Nice to see you, too,” the boy said.
Oneal probed a number of inconsistencies between his testimony and what he had previously told investigators, leaning forward and taking long pauses to read notes and transcripts. He inquired if he had any recollection of going to football games with a detective. The boy stated that he did. He inquired as to whether they had discussed the case. They did not, according to the boy.
“Did you witness me beating your mother?” Oneal inquired. “No.”
“Did you happen to see me shoot your mother?” “No.”
Oneal referred to a series of statements made by the boy to a detective and a forensic investigator, including a claim that he “saw everything,” and asked if he remembered saying that. The boy stated that he did not.
The boy was asked if he remembered telling a detective that his father had never harmed him. He stated that he did not. He was questioned about telling a detective that his sister had been hurt before his mother was shot. He stated that he did not.
As Oneal continued, the boy occasionally took long pauses before responding. The judge had to remind him to answer a few times. He leaned back from time to time. He rubbed the back of his neck. But he kept his cool.
At the end, the prosecutor asked more questions, noting that the boy had spoken to many people since the attack and that his first interview with a detective took place while he was lying in a hospital bed with tubes attached to his body.
“All of this happened when you were eight years old?” Gale inquired. “Yes.”