Q&A with defense lawyer Mark F. Renner
(Forensic Files “Strong Impressions”)
Ron Gillette tried to kill his wife with sleeping pills dissolved in an alcoholic drink and, when that failed, suffocated her by pressing her face onto a plastic bag on August 28, 1984. To make it look like as though Juana “Vicki” Gillette died when she accidentally rolled onto a laundry bag in her sleep, he put some clothing in the bag and placed his sleeping 3-year-old son in bed with Ms. Gillette’s body.
He did it for $27,000 in insurance money – used to finance a wedding to his girlfriend 11 days after the death of Ms. Gillette at age 26. Although the show never touched on other motives, it’s safe to assume he wanted to avoid the child support payments a divorce would bring.
I imagine that anyone who’s seen the Forensic Files episode “Strong Impressions” would be happy to let loose all manner of name-calling and cursing to Hades in the general direction of the former Las Vegas, Nevada, Air Force mechanic.
But we already know Ron Gillette’s actions were awful. To offer insight into some of the related issues — like how an individual convicted of murder managed to exit prison for good behavior after just 15 years — I turned to Mark F. Renner, who was tasked with defending the ex-military man in 1985. A former JAG attorney who left the military and is now a magistrate of Marion Superior Court in Indianapolis, Renner agreed to answer a few questions.
Were you surprised Gillette got out of prison so soon?
Yes. I got a Christmas card from him and the return address wasn’t Leavenworth, and that’s how I found out.
I thought he would have to serve at least another five years before being considered for parole.
How did this happen? The show said he got life in prison without the possibility of parole. According to the ACLU website, no one sentenced to life without parole has ever been paroled.
When he was sentenced, it was simply life, not life without parole. Then the Uniform Code of Military Justice — the bible of discipline for all military branches, not just the Air Force — changed some of the rules, which ultimately applied positively to Ron’s case.
As one of his defense lawyers, did you really believe he was innocent?
I never thought he was innocent. No lawyer approaches a defense having to believe someone’s innocent. What you’re doing is compelling the government to establish its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The death penalty was on the table, so our real focus was defending him from that.
What about the brutal assault that injured Vicki Gillette’s legs? (Ron Gillette admitted that, 18 months before her death, he had broken both her kneecaps in a fit of anger.) At least one web commenter felt he deserved 15 years for that crime alone.
He was never charged with anything in respect to the battery. He was charged with murder and faced a possible death penalty.
Did it surprise you when Gillette married another woman 11 days after Vicki Gillette died?
Yes, and it’s unlikely the government would have ever investigated the case as a murder if he had not remarried and brought his new wife back to George Air Force Base. The original cause of death was linked to possible alcohol and accidental drug intake. At first, they had not determined the suffocation and homicide.
I’m a big fan of Forensic Files. Did working on the episode about Vicki Gillette’s murder leave you with a favorable impression of the way Forensic Files creates its stories?
I found the part I had very appropriate, and I thought their efforts to be thorough were great. They wanted facts and information, and I appreciated that they didn’t try to dramatize or minimize anything.♣
Next: Steven Weisbart of the Insurance Information Institute explains why it’s not so easy to profit by a murder plan.