JSO 'willfully withheld evidence' in case against 'House of Horrors' homeowner, court documents say

Heather Crawford anchors. 4/3/2017

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.- Police deliberately withheld evidence in the aggravated assault case against Russell David Tillis, according to a court motion obtained by First Coast News Monday. 

The motion asks the judge in the case to hold a hearing into “whether the State of Florida has willfully withheld material evidence from the Defendant” – specifically video recorded by surveillance cameras owned by Tillis’ neighbors’.

The motion clarifies it is not prosecutors who have allegedly withheld evidence. “The State Attorney’s Office was misled by the manner in which the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office handled and failed to document [video] evidence.”

Tills is accused of felony aggravated assault and battery against a law enforcement officer. His neighbors complained for years that he terrorized their Southside community with insults and irrational behavior. On one occasion, they say, a naked woman banged on their door in the middle of the night saying Tillis was threatening to kill her.

Tillis has since been charged with the murder of Joni Lynn Gunter, whose body was found buried in his backyard. Police said Gunter died of blunt-force trauma sometime between February 2014 and when Tillis was arrested in May of 2015. Tillis has pleaded not guilty to both the murder and assault charges.

Because of the fear Tillis inspired in neighbors, several had video surveillance systems in place. But there is scant video surveillance from the night of his arrest. Tillis’ attorneys believe that’s because evidence was willfully withheld.

STORY: Jailhouse interview with Russell Tillis

“Defendant was told that no surveillance video or photographs were ever recovered by law enforcement,” the motion says.

“This assertion, while entirely consistent with the reports and documentation generated by law enforcement, has unfortunately, proven to be untrue.”

The motion notes that one neighbor swore in deposition that he turned over video surveillance to police shortly after Tills was arrested. That video evidence was not turned over in response to Tillis’ attorney’s request for all evidence in the case.

JSO Senior Public Affairs Executive Lauri-Ellen Smith declined to comment on the allegations. "With regard to the criminal case's proceedings, we will decline to comment and instead let the criminal justice system's processes take place."

In a statement, a spokesperson for State Attorney Melissa Nelson said, “Our office is reviewing the motion and has no comment at this time.”

Jacksonville attorney Andrew Bonderud, who is not connected to the case, says the allegations are concerning.

"It sounds like the allegation is that the Sheriff's Office was not honest, not acting in good faith, and potentially allowed exculpatory evidence to disappear. That is very concerning." 

Impact on Tillis' Cases

Criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor Alan Rosner, who is not involved in Tillis' case, said withholding evidence has consequences.

"The court could hold them in contempt for failing to provide information," said Rosner. "But typically it creates a delay and allows the defense to get a continuance."

Both Bonderud and Rosner said a charge dismissal over withheld evidence is rare, however an acquittal of Tillis' assault charge could create challenges for the State in Tillis' murder case. 

While Tillis sat in jail on the assault charge, police reports say a tip from an inmate who heard Tillis confess to murder led to the search and recovery of human remains from Tillis' yard.

"If a court determines that this person was unlawfully arrested, and as a result of the unlawful arrest, evidence is uncovered or seized," said Rosner. "That evidence may not be admissible in the murder trial...[it] would be fruit of that poisonous tree as the expression goes."

However, if Tillis' reported statements to the inmate were voluntary, Rosner doubts the admissions would be thrown out even if the defense raised it as an issue.

"When trying to defend a client, you're looking for any evidence that could be helpful and it could be very frustrating when you find [it's missing]," said Rosner. "And it could be frustrating to prosecutors as well when they find there's evidence that wasn't given to them." 

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for 9 am Friday morning.

© 2017 WTLV-TV


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