LARGO — As the lawyers shuffled papers and a deputy led the defendant into Courtroom 2 on Thursday morning, Cathy Corry slid into the second wooden pew on the right.
Behind the chair where John Jonchuck would sit. At the perfect angle to watch the jurors’ faces.
During Jonchuck’s month-long murder trial, the gallery has been mostly empty, except for reporters and law school students.
And Corry — a 63-year-old, widowed, part-time accountant who lives in Clearwater. She doesn’t know anyone involved in the case and has nothing to do with the proceedings, but she had already spent six full days at the Pinellas County Justice Center, watching the trial.
She wanted to see what a man who drops his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge looks like in person, how he acts in court. She wanted to hear the attorneys battle over evidence, interview experts and argue over whether Jonchuck, now 29, is evil or insane.
“It’s so interesting,” said Corry, who wears hot pink cardigans and carries a macrame purse. “I’m just fascinated by human behavior.”
When she can’t be in court, she watches live-stream coverage. But then she can’t hear what happens when the jury gets sent out or watch the judge’s demeanor.
Corry was there for opening statements. She heard the first four witnesses testify for the prosecution. She watched Jonchuck’s mother mouth, “I love you,” from the stand. And when jurors passed around autopsy photos of Phoebe’s bruised body, Corry cringed — not at the images, but at the sight of Jonchuck burying his face in his hands.
Sometimes, she writes in a small, coral notebook — quotes, observations, thoughts to share on her favorite website: websleuths.com. “It’s like amateur detectives following all these murder cases,” she says. For four years, she’s been glued to strangers’ comments about other true-crime killings across the country. So when Jonchuck’s case started, she decided she had to be there to provide commentary for her online community. She has 6,901 likes on her posts.
“Lawyers and judge seem exasperated,” she wrote April 8. “So tragic, yet so fascinating … I have also read many of the depositions. And I am always interested in the opinions of others. I’m on the fence and not yet leaning toward ‘psychopath’ (the word that can’t be used in front of the jury!).”
Corry plans to be back in court today to hear closing arguments. She needs to work in her garden, get the sprinklers fixed. But she wants to stay through the rest of the proceedings and while the jury deliberates. “I need that closure,” she said.
“Actually, that’s the other reason, maybe the real reason I’m here,” she said. “My family never got closure.”
On Feb. 13, 1987, Corry and her husband took their 2-year-old son to her husband’s grandmother’s house. Eleanor Swift was going to turn 85 the next day, and her family wanted to take her out to lunch. But when they got to her Seminole home, there was no answer. So Corry got the key from under the mat and walked in. She called out. No response.
As they walked through the house, nothing seemed amiss. The grandmother’s watch and purse were on a table.
But in the bedroom, they found her, pale and cold, her face buried beneath a couch cushion, which someone had used to smother her.
“I remember the fear, all those thoughts you can’t comprehend,” Corry said. “Now, after 32 years, I’ve kind of gotten beyond the fear. I just want to find out who did it and ask, ‘Why?’ Is that weird? I just want to know.”
The murder remains unsolved. But Corry thinks she knows who did it. She even looked up the guy on the internet, found an address in St. Petersburg.
She wants to go knock on his door.
But doesn’t dare do it alone.
While lawyers readied a video, jurors stood and stretched, and the defendant rocked in his chair late Thursday morning, Carol Bailey slid into the third pew on the right.
Behind Corry’s shoulder. So they could whisper during bench conferences.
Bailey, who also lives in Clearwater, doesn’t have any connection to the case, either. She used to be a victims’ advocate, so she knows her way around courts. But this is the first murder trial she’s attended, her fourth day in court. She and Corry met on those wooden pews.
“I don’t really know why. I just think I should be here,” she told Corry. “I guess I come for Phoebe. There’s been no one here for her.”
When the women started sitting in court, they couldn’t stop thinking about the little girl with the long, honey-colored hair whose smiling kindergarten photo flashed across the news four years ago. They wondered what she felt when her dad held her six stories above Tampa Bay. They imagined her screams as she fell.
They wanted to have open minds about whether Jonchuck planned the killing or really was hearing voices ordering him to sacrifice his daughter — and himself — to save the world.
“You almost hope he’s insane,” Bailey told Corry. “You don’t want to believe a sane person could do that.”
When the video started, the women watched psychiatrist Emily Lazarou talk to Jonchuck in the mental health facility where he has been housed.
“I thought she sounded a lot more professional yesterday, without the jury present,” Corry told Bailey. “Did you see when she said John couldn’t be bipolar? That heavy-set juror in the back row was rolling her eyes.”
In the video, the psychiatrist asked Jonchuck about the day before he dropped Phoebe. When he started talking about the archangel Michael, the doctor cut him off. “Juror number nine seems annoyed,” Corry whispered to Bailey. She wrote a string of words about Lazarou on her little pad: “Argumentative, dismissive, exasperated, judgmental.” Minutes later, she added: “Impatient, presumptive, combative.”
When the psychiatrist asked Jonchuck how he was feeling and he replied, “Kind of sad,” Corry turned her head and pouted at Bailey.
Then the judge broke for lunch, and everyone filed out. Corry stopped defense attorney Jane McNeill. “So, do you believe him?” she asked the lawyer. “Do you really think he’s insane?”
McNeill looked startled, but said yes, she believes that.
“If you didn’t,” asked Corry, “would you tell me?”
The lawyer laughed and shook her head no.
In the hallway, Corry had a confession. “I caught myself forgetting about Phoebe today,” she told her new friend. “This is the first day, I think, that I’ve been so intent on all these legal proceedings that I forgot about her. At least I caught myself. But I kind of feel bad for John.”
She still wasn’t sure what should happen: Send him to prison or to a mental hospital. She had heard three experts testify that he was insane, two say he wasn’t. The testimony that spoke to her most, she said, was when a psychologist told jurors, “If you got all of us in the same room, we’d have more similarities than differences.”
“If there’s any question,” Corry told Bailey, “I think they should give him the benefit of the doubt.”
As Bailey was about to leave, Corry pulled a packet of papers from her purse. News articles, a mug shot of the man she thinks killed her husband’s grandmother. And the address of where he might be. “I have to at least try,” she told Bailey. “I need to know why.”
To her surprise, Bailey agreed to go with her. But only after the jury decides Jonchuck’s fate.
Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Contact Lane DeGregory at [email protected] Follow @LaneDeGregory.