How many lawyers does it take to defend Russell Tillis?
The answer isn't a punchline. It’s actually 13.
To date, the contentious defendant has cycled through 13 attorneys since his 2015 arrest – some more than once – and represented himself twice.
And there’s no end in sight.
On May 28, Tillis filed a motion seeking to get rid of co-counsel John Rockwell. He claims Rockwell has a conflict stemming from his time working for the State Attorney’s Office in 2006 when Rockwell prosecuted him in a prostitution and drug case.
Tillis, 58, is charged with the first-degree murder of Joni Lynn Gunter, believed to have been about 30 years old. Her body was found buried behind Tillis' Southside home in 2016. Police believe she was killed between February 2014 and May 2015.
Tillis is also charged with kidnapping, human trafficking, abuse of a dead body, evidence tampering and kidnapping with intent to terrorize or cause bodily harm. He has pleaded not guilty.
Tillis was already in jail when Gunter’s body was found. He'd been arrested in May 2015 on charges of aggravated assault, battery against an officer, criminal mischief and prowling.
Before that, he had seven prior felony convictions, dating back to 1993. The Tillis house was dubbed a “house of horrors” by neighbors, whom he allegedly terrorized over the years. Police believe he may have also victimized other young women and may be responsible for other crimes.
Since his arrest in 2015, he has filed complaints against several attorneys, citing incompetence, deception and foot-dragging. He has cycled through five public defenders, two attorneys from the office of regional counsel and six private layers. He has also twice represented himself pro se.
Multiple sources also tell First Coast News that Tillis has also accused at least two female attorneys of coming on to him. Those complaints are not part of the court record but were reportedly handled in court during a sidebar.
In his most recent filing, he accused his co-counsel Rockwell of "deception and trickery.'
Tillis’ current lead attorney Charles Fletcher has filed a flurry of motions since he was appointed -- 35 in all since early April. However, the death penalty case – originally set for trial in May – has been repeatedly delayed. No depositions have been taken and given the continued turnover in Tillis’ legal counsel, it’s unclear when the judge might be able to set an enforceable trial date.
First Coast News will cover Tillis' next scheduled hearing on June 13 at 9 a.m.