JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Russell Tillis testified for three hours Thursday in his trial for the murder of Joni Gunter, whose dismembered remains were found on his Southside property in 2016.
At the end of the day the defense was on hold. This morning, both the prosecutor and the defense lawyers will present final arguments to the jury. Judge Mark Borello said he hoped they could begin deliberations after lunch.
LIVE FROM THE COURT: Watch the Russell Tillis trial
From the booth, Tillis said that he saw Gunter for the first time when she was already dead. He claimed that his brother Claude drove to his house and showed him Gunter’s body in the trunk of his car.
Tillis did not say that his brother had killed Gunter. But he said that if his brother were arrested for this, he would not testify against him. Tillis ‘brother is not charged in this case, and the detective in charge on the case testified that they never had any evidence pointing to Tillis’ brother.
Tillis, 59, also testified that he made up an elaborate confession that he killed Gunter and buried her on his property. He said he did not kill her and never knew how she died. Tillis said he wrote the fake story with a fellow Duval County inmate who agreed to wear a wire to record the conversation.
“(Sammie) Evans and I make up a story. First I tell him why I can’t go to the police and give the confession. Once I convince him, OK, I’ll tell him the truth and so I know where the body is buried and that is what is going on and this is why I can’t go to the police and when he has everything understood that, then he started to look at me a little differently, OK, let me hear your story, “said Tillis. “So I’ll tell him my story.”
Tillis claimed that at the time of the confession in prison he thought he would be spending decades in prison attacking police in 2015 and preferred to be killed.
“He and I start making up this murder over a period of maybe three or four days. We were both convinced that we would get the prosecutor to apply for the death penalty so that I would not confess to a murder that the state did not apply for the death penalty and then I would be in prison again for 30 years. I have nothing ” , he said.
Tillis testified that the inmate was a little skeptical and provided a card.
“I knew exactly where the body was buried and I knew the state of the body,” said Tillis. “I drew the map. I told him to study it and then toss the original in the bathroom, make his own hand copy, and tell him to pretend I just told him. “
Tillis ended his hour-long testimony by denying killing Gunter.
During the cross-examination, Tillis refused to answer questions about Gunter’s death.
Prosecutor: “What is it like to cut off a woman’s head with a saw?”
Tillis: “I don’t have an answer to that question either.”
Prosecutor: “Did the saw blade wear out when you cut her shoulders? Did you have to use multiple blades? “
Tillis: I think I just told you that I wouldn’t answer any questions on this subject.
It was a stark contrast to the prison talk that is at the heart of the prosecution’s trial against Tillis, who is charged with murder, kidnapping, sex trafficking, and the abuse of a first degree corpse.
“I kill them, but you have to cut them up,” Tillis said on audio that was played in court on Wednesday.
The first day of the trial ended on Wednesday with playing the confession in prison, which Tillis claims to have made up, and the second day began with a continuation of the recording. Prosecutors played the audio recorded with a hidden microphone in Duval County Jail, where Tillis confesses to killing Gunter. At some point, when Tillis found out that his property was being bulldozed, he was heard saying, “They want to dig up one of their bodies there, and then it will likely lead to the other two.”
Tillis’ property is also discussed, in particular that it was built in bushes like a fortress with booby traps like razor blades. The defense said these were not used to keep the police out, but rather burglars.
READ: Transcript of Prison Record (Warning: Contains offensive language)
Before Tillis took a position on Thursday afternoon, the defense further argued that Tillis made everything up and never killed Gunter. Defense attorneys also called on Detective Dennis Sullivan, the homicide detective on the case, on the question of whether there were chains in Tillis’ house. This questioning followed the testimony of a woman on Wednesday who said Tillis had chained her to his bed at some point.
Defense: “Is there anything to suggest that this chain – old and heavy – scratched the bed frame?”
Sullivan: I didn’t notice. No sir. “
On Thursday, Sullivan also revealed new information about Gunter, saying she had children. The last documented report of her life was in April 2015 when her papers on child support for her children were served.
“Joni to me in this case was someone I basically considered a forgotten victim,” Sullivan said at the booth.
A forensic anthropologist testified that he had identified Gunter’s remains and the coroner testified how she died. He said she was killed by a blunt impact trauma to the head.
The coroner also testified that Gunter’s injuries showed that she was trying to defend herself against her attacker.
Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty if Tillis is convicted.
Jacksonville police said they found Joni Gunter’s dismembered body buried in the back yard of Russell Tillis’ Southside home. (WJXT)
Prosecutors on Wednesday set out the gruesome details of the case, saying Tillis chained Gunter in his house and sold her as part of a sex trade.
As the trial began, Tillis began reading a prepared statement but was cut off by Judge Borello, who asked that the statement be submitted in writing and reassured Tillis while the jury waited to be brought in. Tillis replied: “The jury can wait. “
UNCUT: The process starts with an interruption and opens instructions
In the prosecutor’s opening statement, assistant prosecutor Alan Mizrahi said Gunter was killed by multiple blows to the head, which coincided with wounds from a hammer. He said police found several rooms in Tillis’ house with hidden windows and thick iron chains hung in the garage.
Mizrahi told the jury that Tillis would claim his prison confession was “made up drama” to receive the death penalty for being depressed and imprisoned for years on another charge, but that “this man describes it in a terrifying and amusing way How It Is It is pretty easy to dispose of a body after killing a person. “
In his opening address, defense attorney Chuck Fletcher said Tillis knew of a body on his property but had nothing to do with her murder.
The trial began after years of postponement and delay, many of which were the result of Tillis’ outbursts in the courtroom and objections to a number of defense lawyers who even attempted to disqualify the judge.
Gunter’s remains were found buried in various locations in the courtyard of Tillis’ Jacksonville home in 2016, according to police. Officers and neighbors called it a “House of Secrets”.
At the time Gunter’s remains were discovered, Tillis was already in jail on unrelated allegations.
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