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Ronk guilty of capital murder, armed robbery (updated 2:45 p.m.)

Timothy Ronk has been found guilty of capital murder and armed robbery in the death of Michelle Craite, a Harrison County jury decided this afternoon.

The sentencing trial starts at 9 a.m. tomorrow. In capital murder convictions, the penalty is death or life without parole, but only a jury can decide on the death penalty.

Circuit Judge Lisa Dodson gave the jury instructions on four different verdicts in the slaying of Michelle Craite, who was stabbed, robbed and left to die in a fire set inside her Woolmarket home near Biloxi.

Ronk, 31, was indicted on two charges: capital murder, with the underlying crime of arson, and armed robbery.

If the jury does not find him guilty of capital murder, the jury must then decide on verdicts of murder and arson.

The second indicted count is armed robbery.

Defense attorney Eric Geiss said he does not dispute that Ronk stabbed Craite three times, used her debit card and set her house on fire Aug. 26, 2008.

Craite died of stab wounds, not from the fire, Geiss reminded the jury today in closing arguments.

He maintained Craite attacked Ronk with a knife and was threatening to get a shotgun from the bedroom closet after he told her he was leaving her for a woman he had met over a social networking site on the Internet.

“It is a good, solid case of self-defense,” Geiss said.

In rebuttal, Assistant District Attorney Chris Schmidt said her slaying fits the law's criteria for capital murder – a killing done in the commission of a single underlying crime.Schmidt said there is no proof Ronk acted in self-defense.

“(Craite) was stabbed in the back three times,” Schmidt said, describing the series of crimes as “one continuous event."

Schmidt reminded the jury of federal fire agents' testimony. The agents testified they found a trail of gasoline poured from the bedroom and through the house to the carport, where a red gas can was left sitting under the carport.

Agents said they sifted throughout the ruins of Craite's home and found no shotgun. They found a shotgun in a studio apartment not attached to the house.Co-prosecutor Alison Baker reminded the jury of evidence that Ronk used Craite for money and later admitted as much to his new girlfriend.

“(Ronk) was a predator and Michelle was his target,” Baker said. “She took him in and he took her out."

The verdict on the armed robbery charge lists the stolen items as Craite's debit card, two televisions, a laptop computer, Xbox gaming system and a cordless drill.

Biloxi police detectives testified Craite had bought Ronk a car the day before she was killed and he used her credit card for purchases including a diamond engagement ring for his new girlfriend.

The jury has been sequestered since Tuesday.

The judge has instructed the jury to find the facts through evidence and testimony and apply the law to each of the verdicts.

Dodson explained that self-defense must be an act “necessary” to avoid imminent danger.

Deliberate design to kill, she said, means an intent to kill, even if the intent existed in a defendant's mind “for an instant."

The jury instructions contain nearly two dozen points of law.

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