O’Neal’s attorney confident about trial

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By Damon Lawrence

If the case against Ralph O’Neal ever does go to trial, his attorney is predicting the state will have a hard time convincing a jury he’s guilty of murder.

“I honestly don’t think they have the proof to even come close to showing that he’s guilty,” attorney Bob Vogel said.

O’Neal is charged with first-degree murder in the August 2007 death of Ronnie Dean Cofer. If convicted, the state wants O’Neal sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, contending the alleged murder of Cofer was “committed for the purpose of avoiding, interfering with, or preventing a lawful arrest or prosecution of the defendant, or another.”

“They’re saying the reason Cofer got killed was because everybody started to think he was a snitch, and then they decided that Ralph O’Neal was the most likely person to have done it,” Vogel said. “That’s the best they got.”

O’Neal was accused of being a major drug figure in Roane County, and had been on law enforcement’s radar for years prior to Cofer’s death. In 2008 he was indicted in federal court on 10 drug counts and one gun charge.

“We’ve been after O’Neal for 10 years,” Roane County Sheriff Jack Stockton said in 2008. “He’s been dealing for a long time.”

The Roane County grand jury indicted O’Neal for first-degree murder in Cofer’s death on June 8, 2009.       

“He was just the most likely person to blame,” Vogel said. “They needed to blame somebody and they blamed him. That’s my position.”

O’Neal is scheduled to stand trial in Roane County Criminal Court on Nov. 6.

“I think when a jury hears the facts, the jury is going to wonder why this was even brought to trial,” Vogel said.

Several trial dates in the case have been postponed, but Vogel expressed optimism about it going forward in November.

O’Neal is in custody at the Roane County Jail. He won’t be going free if he’s found not guilty.

That’s because in December 2009 a jury found him guilty on all 11 counts at his federal drug trial. A federal judge later sentenced O’Neal to life in prison.

“Drugs are a part of the murder scenario,” District Attorney General Bill Reedy said. “Part of the proof in this case will be that it was his prior connection to drug trafficking that gave him a motive to want to accomplish this homicide.”

Reedy is prosecuting the first-degree murder case for the state. He said it’s possible the jury could never hear about O’Neal’s drug dealing because of rules limiting what evidence can be introduced at trial.

“We’re going to try to expose as much of that as the judge will allow,” Reedy said. “I just don’t know how much he’ll allow.”