ZACK (6:55 p.m.)
Jury will be back tomorrow at 9 a.m. A deputy just led them out of the courthouse.
ZACK (6:45 p.m.)
Jury is going to come in, but Helinger says they’re done for the day. No verdict. Jonchuck is also being led back in before we officially end.
ZACK AND JOSH (6:40 p.m.)
We’ve been called back to the courtroom. We don’t yet know why. It’s possible the jury has a question, or that they’ve decided to break for tonight. It does not necessarily mean we already have a verdict.
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (4:39 p.m.)
A bit of housekeeping. The defense renews its motion for a mistrial. Nothing happens. Now we wait.
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (4:35 p.m.)
“You must follow the law as it is set out in these instructions,” says the judge. “All of us are depending on you to make a wise and legal decision in this matter. This case cannot be decided for or against anyone because you feel sorry for them — or because you’re angry at them,” Helinger says.
Only one verdict may be returned, the judge says. “The verdict must be unanimous and in writing.”
She shows them the jury’s verdict form, with boxes to check, and tells them they have to choose a foreperson.
If jurors need to communicate with the judge, they can send a note through a courtroom deputy.
The defense has an issue with the instructions. Another bench conference.
Then: One more thing, the judge has jurors make a slight adjustment to the instructions, to account for the potential not guilty by reason of insanity finding. And another adjustment about “weighing the evidence,” making it read “the state or the defense” instead of just “the state.”
“Your food should be delivered soon. You can decide to deliberate as long as you want. You’re in charge now,” Helinger says. She releases the final alternate juror.
That’s it. The case is now in the jury’s hands. A deputy leads them away to the jury room.
“This is the most interesting trial I’ve ever had,” the judge tells the alternate, who stays behind. "Probably ever will.”
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (4:18 p.m.)
The judge tells the jury they have several options on the jury form, from first-degree murder to manslaughter, or if it was justifiable homicide, like in self defense, or excusable homicide, which is an accident.
The judge’s voice breaks, and she stand up to get herself a cup of water.
The jurors follow along in their packets of instructions as she speaks. The instructions are lengthy; Helinger talks quickly.
LANE, ZACK AND JOSH (4:05 p.m.)
“You have to look at insanity at the time of the incident,” the prosecutor tells the jury. “It’s not whether he’s insane today, or if he’s ever been insane. We have to look at whether he was insane at the time of the incident. ... That’s what the law tells you to do.”
Ellis walks back to the lectern, checks some notes. “They brought up some issues at the trial,” he says. Why didn’t the officers collect his phone records earlier? Why didn’t they take pictures of the salt on the windows? “None of that matters,” the prosecutor says. Those omissions didn’t affect the experts’ opinions. “Much ado about nothing.”
The premeditation seemed to start days earlier, maybe even longer than that, according to the state. But it also can be shown from the moment Jonchuck stopped, on his own, at the top of the bridge, Ellis explains. And if the jury can’t find premeditation, he says: “You drop a 5-year-old child of the top of a bridge, 70 feet into the frigid water, that’s aggravated child abuse.
“She dies as a result of that? That’s felony murder.”
Manuele said there wasn’t a real custody issue, Ellis says. But John thought it was real, his custody lawyer thought it was real, his mom thought it was real.
“You have to have a firm belief without hesitation and I submit to you, you don’t have that,” Ellis says, referencing once again the defense’s burden of proof for not guilty by reason of insanity. He says the prosecution proved Jonchuck killed Phoebe beyond a reasonable doubt.
He talks about Jonchuck dropping her into Tampa Bay. “Her core body temperature was 44.6 degrees … 98.6 is normal,” Ellis says, flashing Phoebe’s kindergarten portrait on a screen for the jurors to see. She’s wearing a pink, ruffled blouse, smiling at the camera.
The prosecutor’s wife, sitting in the gallery, gasps, shakes her head and sniffs at Phoebe’s photo.
Ellis points up at the picture. “That little girl died in the cold, frigid water.” The jurors follow his finger to Phoebe’s picture. Several of them have their hands at their chins as they look over their left shoulders at Phoebe’s toothy smile.
Jonchuck holds his head down in his hands, rubs his face, then looks back up.
“This case is about the death of this girl, and who did it,” the prosecutor says. “It wasn’t insanity. It was all the issues in his life building up: Lack of money, lack of friends and family support, shelter. … He tells his mother, ‘I’m going to f--- up your life.’ He’s about to get arrested, he’s about to lose her, the cops are going to take her away from him. The evidence has shown since that night that he was guilty, on Jan. 8, 2015, he was guilty of murdering his daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck, and the evidence shows he’s guilty now. That’s the only verdict supported by the evidence. … he’s not insane. He’s presumed sane. He threw her off the bridge. That’s premeditation and felony murder.”
Ellis concludes, asking the jury to find Jonchuck guilty of first-degree murder.
That’s it: After more than three weeks of testimony and arguments, the presentation is over. Judge Helinger will read the jury instructions and then the case will be in their hands.
Jonchuck talks to public defender Jane McNeill, smiling. He looks confident, almost happy, chatting before the judge begins to speak again.
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (3:54 p.m.)
“When he’s upset, he hurts people and breaks things. You remember the stairs, the laptop with his uncles,” Ellis says of Jonchuck.
“On the bridge that night, he knows the officer is behind him. He knows if he gets arrested for reckless driving, they won’t let him take Phoebe to jail with him. They’ll give Phoebe to her mother. The one thing he cannot abide. Remember? He was even jealous with his mom giving the amount of Christmas presents she did to his daughter … He was so concerned that Michelle was going to come get her that he kept her out of preschool.” (Note: Phoebe was in kindergarten.)
The prosecutor says: “He’s not going to let Michelle and Guy Kisser have her. If he can’t have her, they’re not going to have her. The stressors are continuing to build. He tells the officer, ‘You have no free will!’ He yells it at him. Then he drops her,” Ellis says.
And Jonchuck didn’t drive away calmly, as the defense has claimed, the prosecutor says. He sped away, erratically. “That’s fleeing,” Ellis says.
The blinkers he flashed, the seatbelt he buckled mean nothing in this case, says Ellis. That was just habit.
“The tea kettle is boiling over. Then what? You’re drained."
And: ”One officer said Jonchuck seemed like he was trying to cry, but he couldn’t.
“All the emotions were gone."
The prosecutor says: “How he acted in the jail, how he acted in the hospital? Throw it out." All that matters, all the jurors should focus on, is how Jonchuck acted at the bridge.
In the jail, in the hospital, was it malingering? Was it medication?
Or did Jonchuck finally realize what he did? Ellis asks.
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (3:46 p.m.)
The jurors’ heads move back and forth as they watch Ellis pace. He brings up Peter Bursten again, the psychologist who testified for the state.
“Dr. Bursten told you about the tea kettle. And he told you about the three types of violence there are. The first type is emotional,” Ellis says. “The second type, is premeditated. … The third is conflict, things heat up over time, the heat of the tea kettle slowly bubbles up.”
Jonchuck seldom held a job, never had money, was borrowing money from his parents to get a lawyer, Ellis says. He even had that Social Security letter on him when he got arrested. He’s having housing issues, having issues with his dad.
“They had that on again, off again relationship. He had that with his dad, who had been taking care of Phoebe. On again, off again. That bonding issue, from when he was a child. … That causes problems,” Ellis says.
Public defender Jessica Manuele objected during that portion of Ellis’ speech. She’s raised at least three objections to Ellis’ closing so far.
Jonchuck stares at the table in front of him, rubbing his neck with his hands as the prosecutor speaks.
“He understands what’s going on,” Ellis says. “His house of cards is shaking. It’s not stable. He’s got 1,000 things on his mind … He wasn’t bonding with his mom. He’d say mean things to people just to mess with them. He had issues with Michelle Kerr, with Melody Dishman. He even had issues with his new boss. ... He’s got no one in his corner. It’s getting awful lonely. And now, custody. He’s had Phoebe most of her life. When he wasn’t with Kerr, he had her with him.”
Ellis continues: “His mom told you those (custody) concerns were real to him. … Michelle’s got a new boyfriend. She had MS, couldn’t drive, couldn’t take Phoebe from him.” But she could once she began dating Guy Kisser.
The prosecutor describes Jonchuck’s desperate spiral.
“The lawyer told him in Florida, if you’re a single father, and not married to the mom, she can come take the child any time. … He can’t stand the new boyfriend. Doesn’t really like Kerr. And it might be justified. But he does not want Phoebe living with them. So he starts to get a little panicky. Gotta do something, gotta do something. ... Now, now, now, now, now.”
Ellis goes on: “He’s worried about losing her. He tells the lawyer, it won’t matter tomorrow. Is that premeditation of murder? Maybe, maybe not.”
The custody lawyer thought Jonchuck was going to flee with Phoebe, “take her and run,” the prosecutor says. And that’s what Jonchuck was doing that night, Ellis says.
Remember, the prosecution is also explaining to the jurors they could convict Jonchuck of felony murder. That would mean Phoebe died while he was committing another felony act — aggravated child abuse. It’s like a fallback verdict the state is offering in case the jurors do not feel like they can convict Jonchuck of premeditated murder.
JOSH, LANE AND ZACK (3:34 p.m.)
The prosecutor returns to the expert testimony.
“Every expert, except Dr. Maher, said delusions are fixed,” Ellis says, referencing Michael Maher, a psychiatrist who testified for the defense. “They never change. … They may evolve, but the core doesn’t change.”
Jonchuck told Maher the voices said, “I have to die. I have to die. And evil is after me,” according to Ellis. “Dr. Maher can’t tell us why (Jonchuck) didn’t die. So why did Phoebe die? He knew Phoebe was going to die when he dropped her over the bridge.”
Jonchuck told another expert, “Phoebe and I have to die to save the world,” Ellis says. “The little details, that comes and goes, but the core doesn’t change. But the core changed. If the core changed, you should have questions about the delusions and the hallucinations.”
The prosecutor moves on. “Suicide by cop, that’s not insanity. And the experts said that’s a small possibility,” he says. “What’s the starting point and the fallback point? All persons are presumed sane. The defense has the burden of providing clear and convincing evidence.”
He contrasts what the experts said, painting Maher as an extremist on the opposite end of the spectrum from Lazarou. The rest of the experts, he says, are in the middle, between the two psychiatrists.
“If they’re that far apart on the board, I submit to you how can you have” a concise and clear belief about insanity without hesitation? He’s trying to convince jurors that the defense has not provided enough proof.
“If it’s not clear and convincing, go back to your fallback point: He’s sane,” Ellis says. “I submit to you you’ve got the confusion. ... This is not science. ... He’s sane.”
“If Dr. Lazarou is so bad an expert witness, why did their office use her in January?” asks Ellis. “She’s horrible when she’s against them, she’s fine when she’s on their side. I think you attack hardest over what most concerns you.”
He highlights the language of the not guilty by reason of insanity jury instructions, lingering on the word “necessarily.” He’s trying to tell the jury that a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict could, in theory, mean Jonchuck is released from custody outright. Though that’s not a reality; Helinger admitted it just won’t happen before the jury entered the courtroom.
“If your verdict is not guilty by reason of insanity,” Ellis tells the jurors, the judge could sentence Jonchuck to outpatient treatment, could commit him to a hospital, or release him.
None of the defense’s doctors, Ellis says, can offer an explanation about what Jonchuck was thinking the night on the bridge. Or why he didn’t jump.
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (3:25 p.m.)
Prosecutor Doug Ellis is going to get the last word. His wife is in the second row, surprising him to give him moral support.
He paces in front of the jury box, even closer than Manuele, and speaks in a soft voice to begin.
“He dropped his daughter off the bridge, so insanity. It doesn’t work that way. Mental illness doesn’t mean insanity. All the experts said that. ... The facts don’t fit the narrative,” Ellis says, before addressing the delusions that the defense says drove Jonchuck to kill his daughter.
“He didn’t jump,” Ellis says, his voice rising. “He didn’t jump.” The prosecutor keeps coming back to these words. It’s at the heart of the state’s case. If Jonchuck believed he and Phoebe both needed to die, why didn’t he try to kill himself, too?
“To find the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity, experts say he had to be in a psychotic state. That’s a symptom. You don’t kill people over disorganized thinking. You don’t kill people over grandiose thinking. … You kill people over delusions, so strong, so overwhelming, you follow them. … No matter how much of a pain it is, you do it, you follow that strong hallucination, those voices. You do it.”
Ellis continues: “Delusions and hallucinations draw people to kill. Not because at one point he said he was the Pope. Or that there was Chinese drywall. You have to look at the bridge, what was occurring there. He didn’t jump. And if he didn’t jump, you have to question the delusion, the hallucinations. You just can’t say, ‘I’m the Pope,’ and have that be a delusion. There needs to be depth. There was no depth to what the defendant said. He couldn’t even tell us if the voices were male or female. Because those weren’t delusions.”
JOSH AND LANE (3:05 p.m.)
Now Manuele, who seems like she’s coming to an end, lowers her voice and replays scenes from the night Phoebe died. After he dropped her, Jonchuck was insistent that investigators were asking about Michael the archangel.
And then he makes that statement, “Is Phoebe okay?” Did Jonchuck think that Phoebe was his daughter until the archangel Michael took her over? asks the lawyer. “Another explanation for the same statement.”
“It is irrational to try to make sense of these psychotic symptoms. So the delusion doesn’t make sense, he doesn’t follow through, but we’re also relying on John’s memory. ... He’s been medicated so heavily since then. You better believe he wants to piece it back together if he could. But we’re stuck with what we have,” Manuele says.
“The personality disorder stuff is a distraction,” Manuele argues. She reminds the jury that Bursten diagnosed Jonchuck with bipolar I disorder with incongruent psychotic features.
“We know at 16 or 17, when John was waxing the stairs, he wasn’t on medication then,” Manuele says.
At 3:01, she runs out of time. The judge stops her, but she’s given a chance to wrap up.
“So he’s insane. Even by Dr. Bursten’s account,” Manuele says. “Either he did not know what he was doing or he didn’t know what was wrong. That’s insanity.”
“It is never going to make sense,” she says. “We’ve tried our hardest, we’ve listened to it all. It is insanity. It is not premeditated murder, it is not felony murder, it is not second-degree murder, it is not manslaughter. John never had any ill will, or criminal intent, against his daughter. He loved his daughter.”
She goes on: “He caused her death. He is guilty, but insane.”
She thanks the jury and closes on this line: “The only just verdict in this case is not guilty by reason of insanity.”
We are in a 10-minute recess, after which the prosecution will give the last hour of its closing argument.
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (3 p.m.)
Manuele moves on to Peter Bursten, the psychologist called as an expert by the state.
Bursten, according to the public defender, tried hard to get the jury “to focus less on the facts at the actual time.” Manuele contends the only moment that matters is what was in Jonchuck’s head the second he dropped Phoebe.
“So why did Dr. Bursten testify about John breaking a jar of jelly when he was five, or throwing a laptop down the stairs when he was 17? That doesn’t matter,” Manuele says.
“So what?” she asks. “So. What.”
She continues: “He says the testing he did was this PCL-R, but this definitely was not a test for insanity,” Manuele says of Bursten. The PCL-R, or the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, tests for traits of psychopathy. The prosecution has argued Jonchuck killed Phoebe because of his personality, not due to mental illness.
“If he were actually trying to get a full picture of someone’s personality, why would you not submit a more thorough, objective analysis?” Manuele asks.
Bursten acknowledged Jonchuck may have been experiencing psychosis.
“And if it was psychosis that put him in his mindset, he meets the definition of insanity,” Manuele says, referring to Jonchuck. “Psychosis is not caused by a personality disorder. So where does this psychosis come from that then lasts for a year. It doesn’t make sense. … The psychosis is what’s driving the train.”
Bursten agrees, without a doubt, that John was unraveling, Manuele says. “He does not believe he was malingering, and he was not on drugs.”
Bursten’s "main reason for believing (Jonchuck was) not insane is that he did not follow through on the delusions,” says the lawyer. “It doesn’t make sense. And it will never make sense.”
JOSH, LANE AND ZACK (2:49 p.m.)
Now Manuele starts going over the state’s rebuttal. She puts up two new posters, one that we can see and one we can’t.
It’s clear Manuele is about to try to discredit Lazarou.
It seems the poster we can’t see includes the names of all the mental health professionals who believe Jonchuck suffers from a severe mental illness. The one we can see shows a title of “NO MENTAL ILLNESS.” Below it there’s only one name: Dr. Lazarou.
“They put on two witnesses for you,” Manuele says. “Dr. Bursten and Dr. Lazarou.” All the defense witnesses said Jonchuck suffered from a persistent, incurable mental illness.
“And then there’s Dr. Lazarou...”
First, Manuele says, the psychiatrist’s diagnoses were not actual diagnoses.
“She waved around her DSM for awhile,” Manuele says, and later testified that what’s in the mental health book doesn’t guide her decision-making.
Manuele reminds the jurors that Lazarou isn’t a part of several professional organizations.
“She lied about her credentials …”
The state objects. Another bench conference. It’s probably about the word “lied.”
Manuel continues: “She misled you about her credentials. She can no longer do telemedicine. She doesn’t have any hospital credentials.”
Manuele tries to drive home that jurors should discredit Lazarou.
“Dr. Lazarou doesn’t think John is mentally ill at all,” Manuele says. Another reason to disregard her? Manuele writes $45,000 on the white poster, under Lazarou’s name, the amount Lazarou said she has accrued for this case based on her hourly rate.
“You heard her concede she hadn’t read the deposition of mom, hadn’t read the deposition of dad … she hadn’t reviewed any of those things,” Lazarou says. “She talked to one of John’s friends who’s drugged out of her mind most of the time.”
And the psychiatrist denied it, but jurors heard from the counselor at the mental health treatment center, that Lazarou “said she didn’t have to even evaluate Jonchuck to know that he wasn’t mentally ill.”
“The most important, reliable information was what was reported to the police that day,” Manuele says.
Lazarou kept saying, “That’s not how psychosis works.” But she never brought any paperwork, or offered any information about how psychosis does work, says the lawyer.
“She says she’s been doing this about 10 years. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it 20 years if you’re doing it flawed,” Manuele says.
Manuele had said she’d be brief about Lazarou, but we’re several minutes into the tear-down of the psychiatrist’s testimony. A couple of jurors appear to be scratching notes.
None of Lazarou’s patients are psychotic according to her, Manuele says. Only one was, in 2008 -- the man who cut off his penis. Lazarou had said this man took a dramatic step to conform with his delusion.
“Mr. Jonchuck dropped his daughter off a bridge,” Manuele says, explaining that is pretty drastic, too. The defense lawyer is more animated now than at any other point in her closing argument.
“She indicated that she brought lots of malingering tests but did not administer a single one,” Manuele says of Lazarou. “You have memory tests to test if he’s lying, and she didn’t administer any of those.”
Lazarou said Jonchuck was lying when he kept saying he didn’t remember. But Manuele points out the psychiatrist did the same thing.
“How many times did she say she didn’t know? How many times did I have to get a document to refresh her recollection” or to impeach her?
If five of six doctors said you had cancer, Manuele says, you wouldn’t then go home and just take some NyQuil and move on.
“Dr. Lazarou should be disregarded. You should not give any weight to her testimony. … She relied on her mythical diagnoses, that she’s had no training to do. Disregard her,” Manuele says.
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (2:34 p.m.)
Manuele moves on to discussing Jonchuck’s long stay at a state mental health treatment center outside Gainesville. The public defenders in this case called a doctor and a counselor from the facility to testify about their interactions with Jonchuck.
“There’s a recovery team at the hospital,” Manuele says. They’ve all met more than 40 times, at the minimum once a month. “Everybody agrees that the hospital has the best ability to diagnose him. What do they say? Schizoaffective disorder, not personality disorder.” She’s bringing this up to directly counter the findings of the prosecution’s expert witnesses.
One mental health expert at the treatment center said it took a couple of months before the staff told Jonchuck about what he did to Phoebe, and then he cried. He was out of it for two or three days, the counselor had said. Before that, Manuele emphasizes, Jonchuck could not grasp what happened.
At the hospital, Manuele says, they have video 24/7 — and they’re watching to see if patients are faking symptoms. Four years, she says, and they never saw any signs of “malingering,” an official term we’ve heard a lot in this case that essentially means faking symptoms.
“Every single witness did not believe that John was under the influence. All the evidence shows he was not under the influence,” Manuele says. “I think even Dr. Lazarou might have conceded that one.”
She adds: “All this evidence gives the reason, the support, for not guilty by reason of insanity.”
“We didn’t just get up here and call some paid experts,” Manuele says, an obvious dig at the prosecution. “We did not just bring you three experts to then say ‘they’re right.’ Our purpose in bringing you three experts was not to be repetitive. There were three experts, from three different arenas, all with slightly different opinions.”
Manuele runs through the experts the defense called, referencing a slideshow with their pictures and some text about their testimony.
Forensic psychologist Scot Machlus told jurors that Jonchuck’s mental illness cannot be cured. Machlus said it was bipolar disorder, and that Jonchuck was legally insane when he killed Phoebe. He was not malingering.
“Then we brought you Dr. Randy Otto, he’s the educator, he’s the psychologist who teaches other psychologists, full-time professor for over 30 years,” Manuele says. “And he also does forensic evaluations still, and he teaches the others how to do evaluations. What did he say?
"John suffers from a mental illness which will always require treatment. John was legally insane at the time he killed Phoebe. John is not malingering, and was not under the influence of drugs at that time.”
Next there was a licensed psychiatrist, Michael Maher, a psychiatrist who’s practiced for more than 30 years, says the defense attorney. “And he’s still treating people who suffer psychotic disorders. ... What does he say? John suffers from a mental illness that cannot be cured and will always require medication and treatment.”
It’s a mood disorder with a psychotic component, Manuele says. All three of the defense witnesses agreed about the diagnosis. Even Peter Bursten, a psychologist called by the prosecution, agreed with that, Manuele says.
“Everybody, with the exception of one outlier, agrees Jonchuck suffers from severe mental illness” and a mood disorder and a psychotic disorder, Manuele says. The outlier is psychiatrist Emily Lazarou, called by the prosecution, who does not believe Jonchuck suffers from mental illness.
“John was legally insane at the time he killed Phoebe,” Manuele says. There’s no evidence that John is or was malingering. No evidence that John was under the influence of illicit drugs. “There will be differences,” she says. “Every person also told you that when you’re suffering from psychotic symptoms, your memory is going to be affected. ... It only gets harder.”
She returns to the dream analogy she used in her opening statement, about how Jonchuck’s mind was working like a dream: It makes sense at the time, but it’s impossible to impose logic upon it afterward.
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (2:21 p.m.)
Manuele, talking to the jury, says “that video shows the disorganized thinking.”
“If this was all a big show, a big game, we know the educational level of Mr. Jonchuck. He’s going to be standing on the top of the chair raving like we see in the movies. ... He’s not exaggerating, he’s struggling. He’s trying to keep it together. He’s paranoid. He thinks people are reading his thoughts.”
(Jonchuck dropped out of school after the eighth grade and later got his GED.)
“They’re not able to ascertain who he dropped,” Manuele tells the jury, talking about the officers. “He keeps saying something about Michael. … And remember, this is not right after the scene. It’s an hour, maybe two hours after he’s stopped.”
“On the way to the police station, what does he tell Officer Carter? The only way he will live is with him. No I, no we. He also demands to go to Babylon. Take me to Babylon,” Manuele says. “He asks to go to the airport. Certainly somebody who realizes that they’ve just killed their daughter, and that is wrong, doesn’t ask to go to the airport. It doesn’t make sense that he’s asking to go to Babylon. Then, after leaving Manatee County, on the way to Pinellas County, he asks, ‘What did I do that was wrong?’ ”
“All of the facts, all of the evidence, supports insanity,” says the defense lawyer. “Nothing else makes sense.”
The doctor at the jail said Jonchuck was so paranoid, he thought jailers were controlling his mind, reading his thoughts, doing things to his food, Manuele says, reading from an official report. “Within that first week, ‘patient was slow to answer questions, devoid of affect,’ the same behavior they say they see at the hospital when he gets there two months later. ‘Thought process seemed blocked.’ ” An intake officer asked how many children he had, and Jonchuck said, “Just the one.”
In court, Jonchuck is shaking in his seat, beside defense attorney Jane McNeil, his shoulders and head slightly rocking.
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (2:14 p.m.)
One officer said Jonchuck was speaking incoherently in the back of the squad car, and never mentioned Phoebe, Manuele says. “But he did talk about Michael.”
Back to the video, which shows Jonchuck in a holding room inside the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office as he waits for detectives from St. Petersburg to pick him up. “Is there anything we can get you?” an officer asks. “We’ll do what we can for you.”
“It’s almost like, I’m not being weird, but this is like a conspiracy,” Jonchuck says in the video. “I went looking for answers, who I was and what my purpose was. Ever since yesterday, and a couple of days before … it’s like, I don’t know, when I went to the church and I spoke to Father Bill, he told me that I wasn’t going to be ready this Easter, but next Easter ... and he told me I was the Pope.”
“Watch his confusion,” Manuele tells the jurors, as on the screen an officer speaks to Jonchuck about his job at a Jamaican cafe.
Jonchuck says the owner of the restaurant where he had worked just one day was dishonest. ”I got the heebie jeebies,” Jonchuck explains in the video. “That’s why I didn’t go back. Everybody was just staring at me. …”
Then Jonchuck switches and asks, “Is Phoebe okay?”
“Phoebe?” asks the officer, “Who’s that?”
After a long silence, Jonchuck says, “Phoebe was my daughter. Phoebe J. Jonchuck. Is she okay?”
“This has been going on for a couple days. When was it? Uhhh, I just need clarity right now,” Jonchuck says. “Can we talk about it tomorrow?”
“What do you want to get off your chest now?” asks the officer.
“I’ve had custody of my daughter for about two years,” Jonchuck says in the video. “Basically, it started on Thanksgiving. The ex- had wanted to see her. And I’d reached out, because Phoebe had been asking about her. We went and met at Denny’s ...No, wait, she came down prior to that and stayed with us. There was so much …. Do you just want to know what happened today?”
Start wherever you like, says the officer.
Jonchuck bows his head in the courtroom as he hears himself speak.
“I never said anything about Michael,” Jonchuck says. “This is insane. A lady came and got in the police car with me. ... I’m being manipulated. Conspiracy, conspiracy, conspiracy.”
That’s the end of the video clip.
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (2:01 p.m.)
Manuele is back in front of her posters, which are propped on wooden easels, addressing the journey.
“Now you heard Dr. Lazarou say John was in the here and now. That was not true. It wasn’t like he was in a movie, a raving lunatic, because that’s not how psychosis presents itself,” Manuele says. She shows the video from the night Jonchuck was arrested, when he asks to be let out, then to use the bathroom.
“Watch John’s face,” she tells the jurors. “How he’s watching the officers.”
She pauses the video. It’s broken up into short snippets to illustrate the points she wants to make.
“Now remember, he didn’t actually have to use the bathroom,” Manuele says. Jonchuck is talking about taking his stepmom to the church, saying he thinks something bigger is going on, something that’s beyond him, “beyond everything.” Then he asks, “Will you bring me my Bible?”
The jurors watch the screen — they’ve seen this footage before and are not taking notes now.
“Now at this point you’re going to see John smell the crackers,” Manuele says. They’re just regular Ritz crackers.
Jonchuck, sitting at the defense table in court, leans to his left. He can’t see the screen but appears to be listening.
LANE AND JOSH (1:18 p.m.)
As Manuele goes through the timeline of the night before Jonchuck killed Phoebe, she puts check marks next to the names of people who she says witnessed Jonchuck’s psychotic symptoms.
“The state would have you believe that final rejection from Noemi just set him over the edge,” says Manuele. “And it came out during Dr. Bursten’s testimony that John is homosexual. But somehow this woman rejecting him is what motivates him to kill the person he loves more than anyone else. That doesn’t make sense. John told Dr. Lazarou that Noemi was setting up her prayer room. That doesn’t make sense. ... If John is trying to play crazy, or fake this, wouldn’t he bring up that he was sending messages about religion?”
Manuele keeps going: “After that, John sent some emails to his attorney. ‘I’ll be there in the morning to give you the last $100. We’ll be there at 9 a.m.’ So a couple of things here,” she says. “If you’re planning to kill your daughter, you no longer need to pay your family law attorney.”
And: “How can you say John had all these plans to follow through the next day, but this was premeditated?”
When John gets back in the car on the bridge, Manuele says, “He doesn’t flee. Officer Vickers said he took that big book and secured it in the back. … And he got in slowly and buckled himself in. Sometime in this state of fleeing the police he takes the time to secure his Bible,” Manuele says. “There was testimony when he left the bridge he was going 70, maybe 80 mph. ... And he has this overwhelming sense of fear. He thought something was after him, after Phoebe for days. ... He had no idea what he had just done.”
Jonchuck used his blinker twice while he making a U-turn, Manuele says. “And in the car, he doesn’t fight with officers. He doesn’t struggle. He’s dead weight. Lack of affect. He has a blank look. He was missing all emotion.”
About 50 minutes into her closing argument, Manuele turns to the judge and says now is a good time for a half hour break. Court will resume at 1:45 p.m. In the second part of her closing argument, Manuele will likely attack the credibility of the prosecution’s expert witnesses, specifically psychiatrist Emily Lazarou, who has been a target of criticism from defense lawyers.
JOSH, LANE AND ZACK (1:15 p.m)
“Who is Michael?” Manuele asks. “He is the archangel, responsible for getting rid of Satan.”
Jonchuck repeatedly referenced Michael around the time he killed Phoebe.
At the next church Jonchuck visited, Manuele reminds jurors, the secretary observed that he “really needs to get back on his medication.”
Later that night, the lawyer says, Jonchuck was back at his dad’s house in Tampa and everything was “going smoothly.” But Phoebe all of a sudden was wearing a gold cross that relatives had not seen in years. It was around her neck when rescuers recovered her body.
“John’s just waking up, he has the Bible under his pillow, and he offers to let Phoebe go home with his mother that night. That was the plan. So this whole, ‘I’m going to eff your life up?’ That’s preposterous,” Manuele says.
She dismisses an assertion from prosecutor Paul Bolan that Michele Jonchuck got her life together for Phoebe. “She told you herself she’s on felony probation. How together does she have it?”
That speaks to motive, as the prosecution has argued Jonchuck killed Phoebe to get back at his own mother, as he was resentful that she gave the little girl more affection than she ever did him.
“(Michele Jonchuck) left the house that night, she didn’t call the police. She wasn’t in fear of Phoebe’s safety,” Manuele says.
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (1:06 p.m.)
Manuele goes on to discuss one of Jonchuck’s visits to churches in Tampa.
The priest said Jonchuck was obviously mentally ill, obviously struggling, she says. “But at the time, he said, ‘Cooperate with the deputies. Just talk to them.’ John’s recollection was that he said, ‘Tell him you’re trying to be he best father you can be.’ He thought his parenting was being challenged. Now would be a very good spot to talk up your crazy if you’re going to pretend that you’re crazy. Instead, he says he doesn’t have mental illness. ‘I used to be bipolar. I used to be on 37 medications. But I’m fine now,’ ” Manuele explains.
“The deputy said he was there to do a Baker Act evaluation,” she says. He was not there to make a full mental health evaluation.
“We know John is already hearing voices then, and we know that he’s embarrassed about them. And we know he was trying his darnedest to hold it together, and he tells them he’s not hearing voices,” the lawyer says.
“If you have a premeditated plan to hurt your child and declare insanity later, certainly it would not help your claim to say you’re not mentally ill,” Manuele continues. “John is demanding to be baptized, and wants to be baptized then. And he said he’s the Pope. When challenged, he said he’s not. Just because you say you don’t really believe something does not make the delusion go away. ... It does not mean the delusion isn’t there. It just means you’re denying it.”
Manuele adds: “He also is convinced that he needs to bring his stepmother back.” She recalls the priest saying he didn’t know why Jonchuck returned with his stepmother, but Jonchuck thought the priest wanted him to.
Jurors will get to review phone records from that last day, showing that Jonchuck called Fox 13. “He was going to hold a press conference to let them know he was the Pope,” Manuele says. If you’re trying to avoid getting Baker Acted, so you can follow through with your malicious plan to kill your daughter, this is grossly disorganized behavior. It is not consistent.”
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (12:59 p.m.)
Manuele recalls Torres testifying how Jonchuck believed she had just come back from Babylon and was St. Genevieve. He “got fixated on it — a fixed, false belief,” Manuele says. “And then she said he just stopped, and his tone changed, and he said, ‘Then I must be God.’ And she said, ‘He wasn’t kidding. He really believed it.’ ”
The defense lawyer adds: “These are witnesses. They don’t have a dog in the fight.”
Ands, she says, “This isn’t somebody’s take or interpretation. These are the facts. And when Genevieve tells him he’s wrong, he’s adamant. If she’s not God, he must be. And he has to get on his way to get baptized. It is inconsistent that John is God and he also needs to be baptized. He says he and Phoebe both need to be baptized. Then he asks to leave Phoebe with Genevieve, and she says, ‘That doesn’t even make sense.’ Disorganized thinking. Psychotic symptoms.”
Manuele brings out the Swedish Bible, lugs it over to the jury box and plops it on the railing. It’s several inches thick, with a cover that’s falling off. Some of the jurors stare at it. They’ve seen the book before.
Manuele leans her left hand on it while she continues.
“He’s insistent on reading this Bible, cares nothing about his paternity case. …. He’s saying all kinds of nonsensical things. And when it’s time to go to the church, he makes sure he loads up his Bible before he goes out the door.”
The defense lawyer continues: “And what else does he tell her? An angel named Michael was coming down soon.”
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (12:51 p.m.)
Manuele moves on to delusions and hallucinations.
“A fixed, false belief is one of the examples of psychotic symptoms,” the lawyer says. “It is not the end-all and be-all.
Jonchuck was treated from age 5 to age 12 or 14, Manuele says. “And right around Christmas he became fixated on religion, which he never was before. And he became fixated on his stepmother’s Swedish Bible, and he wouldn’t give it back. And he started putting salt on the windows outside Phoebe’s room. At this point, he has a delusion. And it sticks. ... She’s possessed. That is what fixed means.”
The public defender continues in this line of argument. “Michele Jonchuck tells you she started getting these texts about the Chinese drywall. She came home and everything was fine. The walls weren’t black. Phoebe was fine,” Manuele says. “Now the state will have you believe, as Dr. Bursten and Dr. Lazarou hit on that everything was okay, their opinion was he wasn’t acting that strange. …. If someone is walking around salting the windows and saying the Bible is knocking and their daughter is possessed (that) is not fine. … The Bible is knocking. He’s hearing it knocking. That is an example of a hallucination. The Bible is not knocking.”
Next up, Manuele brings up Genevieve Torres, Jonchuck’s custody lawyer.
“Disorganized thinking,” says the defense lawyer. “What did we learn from Ms. Torres? In August 2014, he seemed to be doing okay. He’s able to write her a coherent email. … Now we know around September things started to change for John. Dr. Machlus relayed that the voices started around September, but (Jonchuck) didn’t want to say anything because he didn’t want to be Baker Acted. …. He attempted to renew a prescription for Seroquel, but it was old and he was no longer a patient of Dr. Arthur’s. Something was feeling off, because he all of a sudden was trying to get that prescription filled again.”
Manuele goes on: “And we know by New Year’s Eve, John was sending frantic emails, disorganized thinking.” The lawyer reads a rambling email Jonchuck sent to Torres. “He is losing touch with reality. He goes to see Genevieve on the sixth, and Genevieve tells you there is a drastic difference. She notices it immediately.”
And: “She also said when he got there, he wasn’t interested in talking about his case. If his motive for killing Phoebe is that he’s trying to keep her from someone else, and he has an attorney he’s going to see, he’d want to talk about his case. But he doesn’t. He wants her to read the Bible.”
JOSH, LANE AND ZACK (12:45 p.m.)
“I’ll go back at length and discuss why this is not premeditated murder. Let’s look at the evidence in this case that establishes Mr. Jonchuck was insane at the time of the incident,” Manuele says. “Clear and convincing evidence is more than 50-50, but somewhere below” beyond a reasonable doubt, she says. And usually, she says, the prosecution holds the burden of proof. But this time the defense has a standard to meet as well.
Ellis objects. Another bench conference. Jurors sip from water bottles and swivel in their chairs.
“Not being the government, we are left with the evidence that’s available. We know that John was sending bizarre text messages to multiple people in those days. Unfortunately, those were not collected,” Manuele says. The state objects and there’s another short bench conference.
Manuele continues: “Mr. Jonchuck’s cell phone was not collected. And after going around and around for awhile and after assuring us that phone was placed into evidence,” St. Petersburg police Sgt. Kenneth Miller came back on the stand and said it wasn’t place into evidence for three months. And when investigators finally tried to get into the phone in 2017, Manuele says, they couldn’t. And now it’s in pieces.
“We won’t know what was on the phone. But we know the evidence that was important in the last three weeks,” Manuele says.
That evidence, she says, shows Jonchuck was insane at the time of the killing.
“The state told you in opening and they told you again that John had this unbridled rage, that he was so mad at his mom that he made this statement that he was going to “eff up her life,” Manuele says. But when prosecutors got Jonchuck’s mom on the stand, they didn’t even ask her about that, the defense lawyer says.
“Then they told you it was just the ultimate rejection. … it was the rejection of Noemi that sent him into this rage, this anger. Noemi didn’t tell you that …. They have this entire case of first-degree murder, but they chose not to put on a single witness to list any kind of evidence to support that theory,” Manuele says. (Noemi is a friend Jonchuck tried to visit and said he was flirting with hours before the killing.)
She props up two charts on easels. One has more than a dozen names on it, under the headline “WITNESS TO PSYCHOTIC SYMPTOMS.” The other, which is faced away from us, shows psychotic symptoms.
LANE AND JOSH (12:30 p.m.)
We know he felt an overwhelming sense of fear, Manuele tells the jurors. We know he loved Phoebe. And while he struggled, she was always his priority.
“Not all of it made sense," she says. “Not all of it was logical. But there was a common theme, and that was to protect Phoebe. He had this overwhelming fear that Michelle (Kerr) was coming to take Phoebe. She wasn’t filing paperwork or calling the police to get Phoebe. So John went to see an attorney, he poured salt outside her window to keep spirits away. He sought help in the Bible, he reached out to his uncles because Chinese drywall was making her strange, her eyes were black, she was waking up wailing. She was possessed. He sought help from his uncles who he hadn’t seen for years. He was trying to get her baptized, or exorcised. It didn’t make sense."
But, the lawyer emphasizes again, everything Jonchuck did was to protect Phoebe.
“John comes to a screeching halt on the bridge. He exits his vehicle immediately. There’s no rage. No anger. … He had a blank expression. He’s calm,” Manuele says. “You have no free will. Is that directed at Officer Vickers? Is it directed at God? Is it directed at humanity? We don’t know. He walks to his vehicle, picks up his daughter, turns in one motion and releases her.”
The jurors, much like they did with Bolan, are staring ahead at Manuele as she speaks and occasionally jotting notes.
“There is no way this is first-degree murder,” the lawyer says. “The evidence doesn’t support that. … Felony murder, he has to have the intent to knowingly or willingly commit aggravated child abuse. There’s no evidence of that.”
She continues: “Mr. Jonchuck did the act that caused his daughter’s death. So he is not not guilty. He is guilty. He is guilty but insane. And when you get the verdict form, not guilty by reason of insanity is what that’s called.”
JOSH, LANE AND ZACK (12:25 p.m.)
Before public defender Jessica Manuele begins her closing argument, the judge tells the jury the court will break for 30 minutes in the middle of Manuele’s speech.
The public defender begins: “It doesn’t make rational sense now, it didn’t make rational sense then. It will never make rational sense. It was insanity. What was John thinking that night? Chances are we are never going to know.”
Rage, unbridled anger, she repeats the prosecution’s claims and asks the jurors: “What evidence did you see of that?”
“None,” Manuele continues. “He felt fear. He believes that he left his house after having some fight with his parents and they’re going to call the police on him and violate his probation. ...That doesn’t make sense,” Manuele says.
“If he was afraid of violating his reckless driving probation, would he be driving like he did that night? He hears all of the dogs in the neighborhood howling. He thinks an ice age is coming.”
Manuele is just a few feet from the jury box, looking left to right at all of the jurors and pacing as she speaks. The defense team has set up two easels and a television screen. They have several poster boards leaning against the clerk’s desk to the side of the courtroom.
Jonchuck stares down in court as his lawyer shows the jury traffic camera footage of him speeding through a red light in Tampa, shortly before he killed Phoebe. Does that look like someone who is trying to evade law enforcement detection? Manuele asks.
“He leaves his house that night and he’s just driving,” she says.
LANE AND JOSH (12:05 p.m.)
Next, Bolan props up his own witness, psychologist Peter Bursten. He works for both prosecutors and defense attorneys, Bolan says. Bursten talked about attachment disorders, interviewed Jonchuck’s mother and father. His testimony was in-line with one of the experts the defense presented, psychologist Randy Otto.
“(Otto) also talked about attachment disorder and personality disorder,” Bolan says. “They focused on his mother, how she wasn’t there for him, problems that would grow, problems that would fester. …
“At the time of the murder the defendant was angry at his mother, his mother who was never there for him, who did drugs and went to jail and was never there for him, now all of a sudden she cares about Phoebe? He’s jealous. He’s angry that she’s giving all this attention to this child he never gave him,” Bolan says. “He was asked, when did this all being? And he tells Detective Miller it all started around Thanksgiving at Denny’s. … Seeing Michelle Kerr, Phoebe’s mother, with her new boyfriend, and now she has transportation. … This was a real threat, because now she can come get Phoebe any time she wants. … She couldn’t drive before, because she has MS (multiple sclerosis), but now she has a new boyfriend. This becomes a real threat to him, which is why he seeks a family law attorney."
Bolan continues: “And over New Year’s, things flare up. He’s angry at Michelle, Phoebe’s mother, there’s words exchanged between the two of them, he’s angry at his own mother and the way she adores Phoebe and never cared for him. On Jan. 5 he takes Phoebe away from his own mother and tells her he’s going to do something that’s going to ruin the rest of her life. What else would ruin her life more than taking Phoebe away from her? She said Phoebe was the light of her life and the reason she got her act together.”
Jonchuck and his mother made a plan that night, Bolan says. “He was going to take Phoebe to school, he was going to work at the Jamaican restaurant, his mom was going to make dinner that night. He made a plan,” Bolan says. “There was reality testing that night. When the mom says no, you can’t come over — which she regrets to this day — the defendant leaves, he’s got no place to go. He’s been rejected by his mother, there’s a threat someone will take Phoebe from him, the Social Security office is sending letters asking where’s the money? … He’s trying to find another place to stay, someone else to stay with, he’s texting Noemi, and what does she do? She won’t even come to the door.”
“That’s the final rejection,” Bolan says. “That’s the end. He’s in a rage. When people are angry, they do crazy things. But that doesn’t make them insane.”
“The evening of Jan. 7, 2015, the kettle is screaming. He’s angry, in a rage,” Bolan says, He repeats Bursten’s assertion that, “The defendants’ actions that night on that bridge were not driven by psychosis, they were driven by his personality.”
“He was going to do the one act that could hurt the most people. … Phoebe’s mother, and his own mother. It was anger, unbridled anger, and rage that drew him to do that on the top of the bridge,” Bolan says.
“There’s only one verdict that is supported by the law, the evidence and your own common sense,” Bolan says. “That is a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder.”
That’s the punch with which Bolan finishes the prosecution’s first closing argument. We take a 10-minute break so the defense can set up a television screen.
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (11:54 a.m.)
“We heard a lot about delusions in this case too. And every expert was asked to define the word delusion. The very first word they used to describe delusion was ‘fixed.’ A fixed, false belief. A belief you have as a psychotic individual that cannot be changed,” Bolan says. “And nothing you say to that person can change their mind. … This is important. Delusions can be so strong that people will gouge out their eyes to follow that delusion. Dr. Lazarou described a man who cut off his penis to follow the delusion. … She explained the delusion doesn’t go from God to the devil to the Pope back to the devil. … You’re going to hear the defense try to discredit her. But remember, in January of 2019, the defense hired her, used her, she testified for them.”
Bolan tries to get in front of some of the arguments the defense will likely raise in its closing argument regarding Lazarou. He reminds them that Lazarou said while on the stand that just three months ago, the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender’s Office — the same law firm Jonchuck’s lawyers work for — hired her for a case. It wasn’t Jonchuck’s defense team, but their office.
“Let’s talk about the delusion,” Bolan continues. He frequently references the defense experts. “The defense has told you that the reason why the defendant killed Phoebe Jonchuck was because he was psychotic, and he had the delusion that both he and Phoebe had to die, or the world was going to hell. Everyone would die. Both needed to die to save the world … Then he changed again and said he’s God. So the delusion completely switches, right before he does it, so he’s God. That’s not how delusions work. … Both these doctors say that’s the delusion. They want you to believe this delusion was so strong, so powerful, that he killed his child because he really believes if he didn’t everyone would die ... but if he really believed that both he and Phoebe had to die, he didn’t do it. ...”
“He didn’t die, he didn’t jump,” Bolan says, raising his voice, pointing at Jonchuck. “So the delusion is he has to die and Phoebe has to die and he killed Phoebe, why didn’t he jump? He didn’t follow the delusion. Because there was no delusion. He’s still here. He didn’t jump. If the delusion was that strong that he killed his daughter over it, why didn’t he jump?”
Jonchuck has rocked back and forth in his seat during some of this argument.
LANE AND JOSH (11:47 a.m.)
After he was arrested, “he said some odd things for sure,” Bolan says. “But he wasn’t psychotic. He said, ‘How’s Phoebe?’ Then he says, ‘Phoebe Jonchuck. She was my daughter.’ He’s talking about her in the past tense because he knows she’s dead. He knows what he did, and that it was wrong.”
The prosecutor continues: “The state hospital did two tests on Jonchuck: A legal knowledge test, and a memory test. Neither test was to determine if he was psychotic.”
Next, Bolan attacks the background of the defense’s expert witnesses. He says all the doctors acknowledged regularly working for the defense. This sort of argument will likely be repeated by the defense, who previewed that portion of their closing argument when cross-examining state expert psychiatrist Emily Lazarou. State records from last fall show Lazarou has made more than $650,000 testifying for prosecutors.
“All three doctors tried to paint a picture for you of the defendant being severely mentally ill since childhood. But what was the evidence you really heard?” Bolan asks. “When he was 5, he had behavior problems and ADD … Dr. Arthur was treating him mostly for mood disorders … No one came in here and said the defendant didn’t have any problems.”
Dr. Gary Arthur, the Jonchuck family physician, has been cited repeatedly in this case, and experts reviewed his records from when he treated Jonchuck. Yet, he was not called to testify in front of the jury.
Bolan keeps going: “No one is disputing Jonchuck had problems. But Dr. Arthur was not treating the defendant for schizophrenia. He was treating him for mood problems. … Dr. Arthur never drug tested him, not once. Yet we know the defendant was using drugs the whole time. The one isolated hallucination, when he felt like his arms were bubbling, the only one … all the experts agree that could be drug-induced.”
The prosecutor paces small semi-circles by the lectern, gesturing with his hands to accentuate his sentences. “The defense doctors cherry-picked what was good for them, and left out what was bad for them,” Bolan says. He brings up Melody Dishman’s statement, that when Jonchuck was 12 and he told her, “If I ever get in trouble, I’m going to claim insanity.”
“You rely on your own memory about that,” Helinger tells the jurors after Manuele objects.
The defense experts didn’t ask about that, or try to get in contact with Dishman, Bolan says. Manuele objects again. Bolan asks for a bench conference, the first since jurors came in. This is one of the only times lawyers get to speak directly to the jury; flow and continuity of narrative are really important. Bench conferences, while important to hammer out issues of substance, risk derailing the flow for the jury. That likely plays well for the side raising the objection. The conference is brief.
“You’ll also recall that we asked three of the experts if this could be suicide by cop,” Bolan says. “The defendant was threatening a child. Officer Vickers didn’t have time to respond to that because he wasn’t expecting a child. He was expecting a gun fight. Two of the experts said yes, it could be suicide by cop. So think about that, he’d have to be sane.”
JOSH, LANE AND ZACK (11:36 a.m.)
The courtroom is more full today than any other so far. There are only a couple of open spots left on the benches on the right side of the gallery, behind the defense table. Members of the media sit to the left, behind the prosecution. Some spectators are likely students, as both undergraduates and Stetson University College of Law students have ducked into the courtroom periodically throughout the the testimony. Two are Cathy Corry and Carol Bailey, spectators who have become friends through the proceedings.
Bolan is continuing to address the insanity defense. “You heard from doctors and family members. You must decide who to believe. Was he insane on the bridge?” the prosecutor says. “Did he know what he was doing just after midnight on Jan. 8, 2015? The defense experts in this case did not tell you what the defendant was thinking on top of the bridge. … Because they can’t.”
The three defense witnesses each had a different version of what Jonchuck was thinking when he dropped Phoebe. One said Jonchuck thought Phoebe could fly away like an angel. Another said Jonchuck told him a school of dolphins rescued his daughter. Their versions differed, the prosecutor stresses.
“Clear and convincing evidence is precise, explicit, lacking in confusion. And it presents a firm belief, without hesitation,” Bolan says. That’s the standard by which the defense must prove not guilty by reason of insanity.
Right after the killing, the defendant “fled, he got away. Strong evidence that he knew he did something wrong. Evidence of guilt. Evidence of wrongfulness,” says Bolan. “The fact that he fled is evidence that he knew it was wrong. Most of the experts said he had mental illness, but it doesn’t matter if he knew it was wrong.”
The toll booth operator heard tires screeching at the toll plaza as Jonchuck slammed on his brakes and sped over cones to get away. “Why would he be fleeing?” asks Bolan. “Because he knows what he did what was wrong.”
Bolan keeps on the subject of Jonchuck speeding away. “He told defense experts he was fleeing south because an ice age was coming. But does he go south? No. He goes north,” says the prosecutor. Bolan recalls testimony from experts who say people experiencing psychosis can still drive. “If you can be psychotic and pay attention to street signs, why does he go north? That is flight, and it’s getting away.”
During this portion of Bolan’s speech, Jonchuck bows his head, then looks over at what public defender Jane McNeill is writing.
Some jurors scratch notes, but many just watch as Bolan leans into the lectern and makes his point.
“And then when the defendant finally realizes the police are behind him, he goes into the right lane, takes a U-turn, and drives head-on (toward another officer). … When the defendant was asked by both sides, … you’ll recall he conveniently doesn’t remember the details of that flight. ... If he’s speeding, there’s more evidence of fleeing.”
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (11:28 a.m.)
Bolan later moves on to insanity. He seems to be running through all the potential verdicts the jury could reach, all the ways they could find Jonchuck guilty.
“Several experts have quoted this law,” Bolan says. “A person is considered to be insane when he had a mental infirmity, disease or defect, and because of this condition he did not know what he was doing, or he did not know what he was doing was wrong.”
He goes on: “Just because someone has problems, has a mental illness, does not make them insane.”
“In order to find him insane you’d have to believe both 1 and 2” Bolan says. (The two prongs of insanity are that the defendant has a mental illness, and that it prevented him from understanding the implications of his actions.)
“There’s a lot of talk about the defendant’s life in this case,” Bolan says, going back even to when Jonchuck was 5 years old.
“I would submit to you that the only thing that matters is what this man was thinking on the top of the Dick Misener Bridge on Jan. 8, 2015,” Bolan says. “That’s all that matters. Did he know what he was doing to Phoebe Jonchuck? And did he know it was wrong? The answer is yes. He clearly knew what he was doing. And that it was wrong.”
JOSH, LANE AND ZACK (11:24 a.m.)
Bolan then moves on to give jurors a preview of the instructions they will receive before they begin deliberating in a few hours, diving into a discussion about the difference between first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree felony murder.
“The law that the judge reads to you is the law you swore to uphold,” Bolan says. “I told you in opening that the defendant is charged with first-degree murder. That can be proved by two ways: The first is premeditated murder. The second is felony murder. … Both premeditated and felony murder are both first-degree murder. When you make your decision and you check out the verdict form … it will just say first-degree murder.”
(Note: Felony murder is applicable when someone dies and the suspect was in the commission of a felony crime — in this case, according to the prosecution, that act is aggravated child abuse. “In the course of that aggravated child abuse, Phoebe Jonchuck died,” Bolan says.)
He continues: “Killing with premeditation is killing with a decision to do so ahead of time. … The period of time must be long enough to allow reflection, that’s a key word, reflection. You’ll see the law does not say the defendant had to form his premeditation a month before, a week before, or even a day before. The period must be long enough to allow reflection by the defendant.”
He references text excerpted on two poster boards he places in front of them on an easel.
“When the defendant chose, on his own, to stop on the top of the Dick Misener Bridge, to get out of his vehicle, to walk between his vehicle and Officer Vickers’s cruiser, opens the door, sees his child, unbuckles Phoebe from her booster seat, pulls her out and then turns and drops her off the side of the bridge, at that time, he’s had enough time to reflect on what he did,” Bolan says. “According to these jury instructions, he is guilty of first-degree murder. And we’ve proven that to you.”
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (11:18 a.m.)
The prosecutor goes back to the beginning of the the state’s case, recalling how prosecutors called witnesses to try prove that Jonchuck committed the murder. Later, he says, he’ll address sanity and insanity.
The jurors are watching intently as Bolan circles the lectern.
He reminds them that the prosecution’s first witness was St. Petersburg police officer William “Drew” Vickers. Vickers told the jury how he was returning home from a long shift, heading south toward the Sunshine Skyway Bridge when he saw a white Chrysler PT Cruiser speed between him and another vehicle at 100 mph. He didn’t initially try a traffic stop, Bolan says, because the car was driving so erratically he thought it was stolen.
Later, Vickers saw Jonchuck stop the car.
“That’s important,” Bolan says, because Vickers did not initiate a traffic stop. Jonchuck chose to stop, and at the top of the Dick Misener Bridge. Then Jonchuck got out and said, “You have no free will.” Bolan tells the jurors they heard a psychologist, Peter Bursten, testify that meant, “You can’t stop me.”
Then Jonchuck dropped his daughter off that bridge, Bolan says.
“A bridge that is 70 feet high, it’s cold outside, in the low 40s … the wind is blowing, whipping around that bridge, the water is dark. Phoebe Jonchuck is dead … We’ve proven that to you beyond a reasonable doubt. Officer Vickers said that’s the man who did it. One hundred percent. There’s no question. You heard that’s the man who killed his daughter,” Bolan says.
Jonchuck sits at the defense table, sometimes looking down and sometimes at Bolan.
“You heard that Phoebe’s body was found 90 minutes after she was thrown off the Dick Misener Bridge,” Bolan says. “The medical examiner testified that was a healthy child. There was nothing wrong with her except what the defendant did to her. The only cause of Phoebe Jonchuck’s death was drowning, and hypothermia…. You saw photographs of injuries to her back, to her thighs … which means she hit something on the way down as she plummeted 70 feet down into the water. … And there was a frothy liquid in her lungs, consistent with drowning. … We have proven to you that the defendant killed his daughter. … She was otherwise happy, healthy and alive.”
LANE AND JOSH (11:10 a.m.)
Prosecutor Paul Bolan gives the first closing statement.
“Members of the jury, it’s been a long time we’ve been together and I appreciate your attention during this case,” Bolan says.
”He,” talking about Jonchuck, “said none of this will matter tomorrow. The day of the murder. So why don’t you think about that for a moment. The man sitting right over here at the end of that table said that on the day of the murder,” Bolan says.
“In opening statements, you’ll recall that I told you what I wanted you to do during the course of this trial was to look deeper. I said, ‘look deeper.’ ”
Bolan continues: “When you hear evidence, when you hear statements, the easiest way out" would be to say, because this sounded strange or was a little bit off, “he must be crazy, he must be insane.”
LANE AND ZACK (11:06 a.m.)
The jury comes in and picks up their yellow legal pads.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Everybody set?” asks the judge. The jurors say they are, and that they haven’t seen or heard anything over the weekend about the case.
“The lawyers now will present their final arguments,” Helinger says.
ZACK (11:03 a.m.)
Just heard a surprising updated. Juror 1179, who has asked the most questions of any juror, is unavailable, according to Helinger. That juror will be replaced by an alternate. That means three of the four alternates have been called upon in the case.
ZACK AND JOSH (11 a.m.)
The argument over jury instructions goes deep into minutiae. For instance, public defender Greg Williams just objected to the use of the word “necessarily” in the not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) instructions.
Prosecutor Doug Ellis objected, saying it’s part of a true statement.
“We all know he could be released if he’s NGRI,” the judge says. “Theoretically. We all know he wouldn’t be.”
“If Mr. Jonchuck were charged with trespassing,” she adds, “he probably would be released.”
Helinger says she’s going to leave “necessarily” in there.
LANE AND ZACK (10:53 a.m.)
The defense and prosecutors are at their tables.
They’ll first have what’s called a charge conference, where both sides will make final arguments over jury instructions. Jonchuck comes into the courtroom wearing a light purple dress shirt and a dark, patterned tie.
“Good morning, Mr. Jonchuck,” Judge Chris Helinger says.
“Good morning, how are you, your honor?” he says.
“Fair,” answers the judge.
Jonchuck has never asked the judge how she is before. She asks him the same; he says he’s good.
ZACK (10:40 a.m.)
The lawyers and deputies have set up the courtroom. The lectern is turned toward the jury box, as opposed to the witness stand, in preparation for closing arguments, which are expected to begin about 11 a.m.
We reviewed Jonchuck’s latest jail log, and there’s not much new from the weekend. He’s still receiving meals and medications. There’s an entry of “psych sickcall,” but we’re not sure exactly what that means, and it does not include other details. There are no obvious behavior issues listed.
John Jonchuck’s murder trial could end today.
With testimony finished, the only thing left for lawyers to do before the jury begins to deliberate is make their closing arguments.
Jonchuck is charged with first-degree murder in the 2015 death of his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe.
Judge Chris Helinger has budgeted four hours today for arguments. Each side will get two hours: The prosecution will go first, then the defense and then the prosecution again. Prosecutors can break up their time however they choose.
The closing arguments represent the final time lawyers will talk to the jury and serve as capstones for the more than three weeks of testimony. With all the evidence now presented, the arguments are pitches to jurors to believe in one narrative over the other.
Helinger hopes jurors will begin deliberating no later than 3 p.m. She has already said they are welcome to work late as they like tonight to reach a verdict, or agree to come back Tuesday morning.
Read our previous coverage of the case below: