JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Last week during his trial, jurors heard about the “House of Horrors” where Russell Tillis committed his brutal crimes.
On Wednesday, his attorneys told them about an earlier house of horrors, the one in which Tillis was raised.
Following Tillis’ conviction last week for first-degree murder, the penalty phase of the trial began with Tillis’ attorneys introducing evidence of the physical and sexual trauma they say he suffered growing up at the hands of his father.
Forensic psychologist Dr. Jethro Toomer testified the toxic stress he endured, along with a drug addiction that began at 13, stunted Tillis mentally and emotionally.
“Russell Tillis is a damaged, badly broken individual but not beyond redemption,” defense attorney Donald Mairs told jurors. “You are going to learn that Russell Tillis was poisoned by the violence that he witnessed, that he endured both sexual and physical, and also the drugs that he used.”
However, prosecutor Alan Mizrahi told jurors the guilty verdict they reached last week should inform their decision in the penalty phase.
“What happened on 3551 Bowden Circle was shockingly evil. It was heinous atrocious and cruel,” Mizrahi said. “We are confident you will hold him fully accountable and that you will do what the facts in this case require, and that’s to vote unanimously for a sentence of death.”
Two of Tillis’ former victims were the first to testify.
One woman told jurors he picked her up from the side of Interstate 75 in 1989 after her car broke down. She said she was reluctant but desperate on the dark and lonely road, and that she knew immediately something was very wrong. She testified he drove her to a construction site, strangled and attempted to rape her.
A second woman, now an adult, told jurors Tillis raped her repeatedly in 2006 when she was just 14, necessitating her first-ever pelvic exam as part of a sexual assault assessment. The photograph prosecutors showed of her at that age was so childlike, it elicited a gasp from the gallery.
The grandmother and sister of murder victim 30-year-old Joni Gunter also took the stand to deliver victim impact statements.
Gunter’s grandmother Darlene Johnson testified she is raising Joni Gunter’s son, and he sometimes tells people he calls Johnson 'mama' because "my mama was murdered.”
Gunter’s sister Ashley Gunter talked about their difficult childhood. The girls were raised in separate foster homes, but she remembered their shared love of music and said at one point, they even formed band.
“When I was 18, she wrote me a song, and she wanted me to make my own verse for her. ‘Don’t cry my angel, don’t shed a tear. I’ll still be here. Holding you near.’ That’s the verse she wrote,” Gunter remembered.
Beginning to cry, she said, “I miss talking to her, her voice her singing I miss her so much. I still have so many questions I want to ask her.”
The final witness of the day was a toxicologist to testify about the long-lasting damage wrought by Tillis’ years of drug addiction and abuse.
Testimony is expected to finish by midday Thursday, at which point the case will go to the jury for deliberations. The death penalty requires a unanimous vote of the 12-member jury. Otherwise his sentence will be life in prison.