Update: Tonda Royal on April 9, 2020 was sentenced to 12 years in prison followed by three years’ probation and a lifetime designation as a sex offender. On April 20, 2021, the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed the sentence.
What was unusual at the conclusion of the three-day trial Wednesday evening in Bunnell was why, in a case that seemed airtight for the prosecution, and “outlandish” and “preposterous” for the defense (in the prosecution’s description), it took the jury four hours to find 54-year-old Tonda Royal guilty of unlawful sex with a minor–or statutory rape.
As Royal, 54, told it when he took the stand today, he’d never had sex with the 16-year-old girl he was accused of having sex with, a conviction that could net him up to 15 years in prison when he is sentenced on April 3, but is likely to result in less.
Yet his sperm’s DNA was found in the girl. His defense attorney wasn’t contesting that. He wasn’t contesting it, either.
But he had a theory. A conspiracy theory. The six-time convicted felon, who happened to be on federal probation at the time of his arrest after the statutory rape in December 2018, told his theory on the stand, believing it as fact.
It went like this. One day a girl called “Shannon” drove over to his camper in the Mondex with the 16-year-old. “Shannon” had just met Royal that day, and shown interest in him. The 16 year old somehow vanished that day, as “Shannon” would vanish, too. But not before “Shannon” had sex with Royal.
Twice. That was Royal’s boast. They did so with a condom. “Shannon,” he claims, removed the condoms. That detail, which he offered the jury, was central to his defense. Royal said he doesn’t know what happened to the condoms. He claims “Shannon” must have taken the condoms and their content, handed it over to the 16-year-old, had her insert his emissions in her, then run to her mom the next day and claim he’d raped her.
Assistant State Attorney Melissa Clark was somewhere between fascinated and incredulous by the tale as she was cross-examining Royal. Their exchange went as follows:Clark: “Are you then implying that she left with the condoms?”
Royal: “She did. She had to, otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Clark: “OK. So that’s what I wanted to make sure I understood. So you believe that Shannon left with the condom with your sperm inside of it.”
Clark: “You believe that’s how your sperm got inside [the victim].”
Royal: “I know it did.”
“OK. So you believe that Shannon left with the condoms filled with your sperm, and then took that condom to [the girl]–”
He did, because he hadn’t had sex with anyone else for a week or two around that time, other than “Shannon.”
Clark: “Do you agree it’s your sperm that was found” in the girl?
Royal: “If that’s what they say.”
Clark: “It’s your belief then that Shannon presumably must have been setting you up.”
Royal: “I believe Shannon was complicit in the set-up, she was party to it.”
Clark: “And convinced [the girl] to do this.”Royal: “I don’t know what kind of relationship she had [with the girl]. I believe there’s another mastermind or two involved. Maybe they are under some type of arrangement for [the girl], you know, for this whole thing to come down to where we are today.”The defense never produced “Shannon.” Nor did the prosecution. A close friend of the girl in a deposition had never heard of “Shannon.” It’s not clear if she exists. The 16-year-old victim was brought back on the stand and asked if she knew a girl called Shannon. She did not. She was asked if she’d ever gone to Royal’s camper with a girl called Shannon. She had not.
The DNA wasn’t the only evidence tying Royal physically to the girl. His own words did. He conceded telling the girl’s mother, when she found out, that he had had sex with the girl. More specifically, the girl had reported to her mother that she’d been raped. Her mother was livid. When she confronted Royal, he told her “I fucked up, but it’s not what you think.” Meaning the sex was consensual, in his view, as the prosecutor put it.
Today, Royal said he made that statement not because the sex happened, but because he was “under duress.” Two men had displayed a rifle, “an AR-15” or something like it, Royal said, and told him that if he told the girl’s mother that it had been sex, but not rape, all would be well. He felt threatened, and was “trying to survive,” so he told the mother what she needed to hear, he said.
In her closing argument, Assistant State Attorney Regina Nunnally kept returning to the fact that for months, the girl had claimed she was raped, and only just before trial was her wording changed to “unlawful sex,” matching the wording of the prosecution’s charge. Nunnally wanted to show the discrepancy to undermine the girl’s credibility. But the difference in wording is only a legal one: the prosecution charged “unlawful sex with a minor” because it’s far more difficult to prove a forcible rape charge absent further evidence, and the prosecution was looking for a conviction.
When the girl testified about the encounter, she said she was crying and had frozen. It was not consensual to her. (According to her friend who was deposed before the trial, and who did not testify, the girl claimed to her that Royal had been raping her repeatedly, while her friend said in the deposition that Royal was known to hang out with younger people, entice them with pot or booze and was rumored to have “raped” others. Nunnally had told the jury in her opening argument that she would be unraveling inconsistencies in the girl’s account. She did not touch this one.) Some of the other accounts Royal had testified to were about Duane Weeks Jr., a friend of the girl’s family he’d been having run-ins with, who had it in for Royal and wanted to get him in trouble. (Royal was friends with Weeks’s ex. The ex in a deposition said Weeks would harass anyone who’d befriend her.) But Royal never tied “Shannon” to Weeks except by allusion. Nor did Nunnally, though she returned to the alleged problem Weeks had with Royal again and again, suggesting that there may have been a racial element to a white accuser and her friends trying to get a black man in trouble and out of the way. But the prosecutor pointed out that if that had been the case, why would they have left Royal alone for five months between the time of the allegation and the time he was arrested? Why would he have stayed in the Mondex, moving just a few streets over at most, if he’d felt threatened? He said it was because he didn’t have money to go further, and even if he did, he wouldn’t have left his mom behind.
Whatever his stories were, the jury of four men and two women (five white, one black), didn’t buy them. At one point as deliberations were dragging the jury came out with a question, wondering about the difference between a partial DNA result as opposed to a “full” DNA result. Royal’s sperm had produced a “partial” match in the girl. The attorneys agreed to have the jury rely on its own recollections to answer that question for itself.
That may have been a hint about why the jury was taking so long: there may have been a misunderstanding about DNA evidence. Shortly after that, and moments before the judge was readying to offer dinner or send the jury home, the jury returned with the verdict.Royal after the noon break had returned to the courtroom all smiles, even flashing a raised index finger, as if to signal “Number 1” to a reporter and all but posing for a picture. The self-confidence was misplaced. He had more humbly, or perhaps more worrisomely, crossed himself before the verdict. He did not react as it was read, and submitted without emotion to bailiff Brian Sheridan’s handcuffs as the jury was polled.
The only person in the courtroom related to the victim was her mother. A friend or a relation of Royal’s, who’d sat through the entire trial, was also in the courtroom, as was a victim’s advocate and Flagler County Sheriff’s Detective Dennis Lashbrook, who had investigated the case.