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Long days, long week, but finally, a jury for Jonchuck

Defendant John Jonchuck covers his eyes with his hands for several minutes during jury selection on Friday at the Pinellas County Justice Center. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Defendant John Jonchuck covers his eyes with his hands for several minutes during jury selection on Friday at the Pinellas County Justice Center. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Mar. 22, 2019

After five days, the judge finally seated a jury Friday night.

The process had been frustrating, for the judge, the lawyers and many of the 1,200 people summoned to hear the murder trial of John Jonchuck.

Some prospective jurors had to come back to the Pinellas County Justice Center on three different days. They had to miss work, cancel allergy shots and physical therapy appointments, hire babysitters and dog walkers, find someone to pick up their kids, take their spouses to doctors' appointments, check in on their elderly parents.

After a week of waiting, of explanations and interviews, 12 of them — plus four alternates — were chosen to serve on the panel that will decide whether Jonchuck was insane when he threw his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, off a bridge, into the chilly waters of Tampa Bay.

• • •

This trial "is one of the most complex cases we've had to seat," said Justin Gross, who supervises jury services for the county. In his six years on the job, he couldn't remember calling in more than 1,000 people for a single trial. Only 40 percent showed up, he said, which is a typical rate. So many people need to reschedule jury duty.

So many who show can't serve — or don't want to.

The county pays $15 a day for the first three days of jury duty, $30 for every day after that. That's barely enough to cover gas and lunch, let alone lost wages. The rate hasn't been raised in more than 20 years.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: The trial of John Jonchuck: Daily live blog and everything you need to know about the case

LIVE BLOG: The Trial of John Jonchuck, Day 5: Narrowing it down

THE CASE: The trial of John Jonchuck comes down to one question: Evil or insane?

THE VICTIM: The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

This case has complicating factors: An off-duty St. Petersburg police officer saw Jonchuck drop Phoebe off the approach to the Sunshine Skyway bridge on a cold January night in 2015. News outlets across the country aired the story. No one is debating whether the 29-year-old, with a history of violence and mental health issues, killed his daughter. The question is: Was he insane when he did?

So prospective jurors were asked what they knew about the case and what they thought about an insanity defense. The death penalty was off the table. Jonchuck will be sentenced to life in prison or sent to a psychiatric hospital.

Most every day this week, more than 100 people poured into the cavernous Courtroom 1, on the fourth floor, to talk to the judge and lawyers — who debated about whether they could be fair.

The would-be jurors filled five rows of long, wooden pews, clutching backpacks and paperbacks, squeezed between strangers.

"If you're selected, it might be one of the most important decisions you make in your life," Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger told each pool of people. "It's not comfortable to come to the courthouse each day. You're not going to be able to listen to the news or read a newspaper. We're not sure, but it could take up to a month. Is there anyone who cannot serve?"

Every time she asked, more than half the people shot up their hands. As the judge asked them why, and the excuses started coming, more and more hands shot up.

One man runs the Daiquiri Shak on Madeira Beach. "This is our busiest time of year," he said.

A woman was leaving on a cruise soon. Her mother had paid for it months ago. "She'd be so disappointed."

"I'm on dialysis three days a week," said an elderly woman.

"We should be done by 7 p.m. every day," said the judge. "You can't do it late at night, can you?"

If you didn't understand English, you were excused. If you had a pre-paid vacation, or had to undergo chemotherapy, ditto. College students got dismissed; they couldn't miss that many classes. Anyone who was a sole caregiver got to go. And if being out of work for a month would make you destitute -- not inconvenienced, like you have to dip into your savings, but lose-your-house broke — you could go home.

Other problems were not the court's problems.

No transportation? Take a bus or Uber, said the judge.

Have to be a best man in a wedding this weekend? Well, you can skip the rehearsal dinner Friday, the judge said.

An elderly woman was having trouble regulating her insulin and worried she might pass out in court. "Then this is probably the safest place you could be," said the judge. "We have paramedics on call here."

If you can't sit for long, you can stand. If you have to check in with your office, you can do that on breaks. If you're a teacher, better find a good sub.

Some people's sad stories were unbearable. Others were unbelievable. The judge listened, nodding, trying to troubleshoot their problems — shooting down their complaints.

"I'm taking care of my fiance's mother, who is a quadriplegic. And I'm a dog trainer. I have 15 dogs at my house and there's no way I can leave them alone for that long," one woman said.

"All those dogs in your house?" asked the judge.

"We have a kennel out back," said the woman. "But they need me."

By the end of the first day, only 13 had made it to the second round. The judge wanted to choose 70, then narrow the field to 16.

• • •

On the second day, the judge excused a prospective juror because: "He doesn't know what planet he's on." Another was allowed to leave because he had to take his boat captain's test. A third, a newly divorced mom, was let go because when the judge asked if her ex-husband could pick their son up from school, she started sobbing.

The biggest cause for dismissal was knowledge of the case.

Most knew the story. Many recited details: about the lawyer calling child protection services, the cop watching Jonchuck carry his daughter to the railing, the college students finding Phoebe's body floating in the dark waves.

"I worked at fire station #11. Other members of my crew worked that night on the situation," said one man. "I'm pretty sure that would be in the back of my mind the whole time."

Many people said they couldn't be objective because they were parents and grandparents. They couldn't even conceive of anyone doing that to a child. Others didn't believe in the insanity defense, called it "a cop out" or "get out of jail free card."

"Could you set aside those feelings and just rely on the evidence?" the judge asked again and again.

"I'm sorry," one man said. "I just don't think I'm capable of remaining objective."

By 6 p.m. on the second day, 35 prospective jurors were on the short list. Another group was coming in the next morning.

• • •

Another day, another 120 people in the jury pool.

A woman in the front row raised her hand. "I don't want to be here," she said.

The judge stared at her, then answered, "That's not a reason."

"I have my boy at home and two dogs," one woman said, explaining why she couldn't serve.

"Two dogs?" asked the judge. "And how old is your son?" He's 17. The judge told her to sit down.

"I, I, I … have terrible anxiety," stammered a young woman, sniffling. The judge called her to the bench. The woman broke down and couldn't catch her breath. The judge let her go.

"I'm a small businessman, and I'm just getting everything up and going. I'm not sure I could be out of work that long," said a man in a plaid shirt.

The judge told him he wouldn't have to come to court until 9 a.m., and most days, he would be done by 7 p.m. The man thought a second, then said, "Well, if I can get up early and get everybody rolling before I have to come in, maybe I can make this work."

"Thank you," said the judge. "You're a shining example."

If they could miss a month of work, and set aside everything they'd heard or read about the case, prospective jurors then had to be willing to consider a defense of "not guilty by reason of insanity."

Jonchuck's public defenders have to prove either he didn't know what he was doing that night in January 2015 or he didn't know that what he was doing was wrong.

"I understand the idea that state-of-mind and mental illness don't mean the exact same thing," said one man. "But my preconceived notion is that he was out of his mind." The man said he would try to be objective, figure things out from the evidence presented. He said, "As long as I make it to church by 6:30, I'll be all right." The judge said he could go home.

By day's end, she had chosen 54 people to come back for more questioning. Another 53 fresh candidates would be there in the morning.

• • •

By Thursday, everyone was tired. Same questions. Same excuses.

Most people seemed to know something about the case. Many had formed an opinion.

"My wife told me all about it. She doesn't like what happened at all," one man said.

"I don't think anybody does," said the judge. "Would you be able to set aside what your wife told you and listen only to the evidence presented in court?"

The man paused. "Oh, she's going to nag me, I know."

"Do you really listen to everything your wife says?" asked the judge. "Wait. I didn't mean it like that, but … If you indicate to her that you're not supposed to be talking about it, is she going to talk to you about it anyway?"

"Probably," said the man.

"Okay," the judge answered. "I'm going to excuse you."

"When I came into this courtroom, I was trying to be neutral," said one woman. "But my reaction was anger -- that the option of the death penalty was removed."

"I'm an open-minded person. I'd have to hear all the evidence," another woman said. But she mentioned John Hinckley, who had shot President Ronald Reagan and been found not guilty by reason of insanity. He'd eventually been let out of an asylum to live with his mother, and that worried her. "If there's a chance someone could be released back into the public because they were no longer seen as insane, I'd have to consider that."

The judge dismissed her. Then approved the next person.

By 3 p.m., she had chosen 67 prospective jurors to go onto the final round of questioning -- three short of her goal.

"I'm thinking we should just go with what we have and break for today and get to final selection tomorrow," she told the lawyers.

"We asked for 80 to 100," said a defense attorney.

So Thursday afternoon, the judge brought in another 60 people. She asked who couldn't serve for a month. Then sent the rest home. The remaining ones would be brought back Monday if a jury couldn't be picked from the 67.

• • •

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We're ready to start the final process of jury selection," the judge said just after 10 a.m. Friday. "We're an hour late because two of the prospective jurors didn't come, and we wanted to give them a grace period to show up. But that grace period is over. It's time to begin."

She asked them to stand up, one-by-one, state their names, occupations, where they live and if they have kids. But after every few people, someone asked to approach the bench and share a private concern. The judge let each one come up front and called the lawyers to listen.

Soon, another 12 people had left the jury pool. "I guess we just plow on," said the judge.

Just before lunch, a deputy approached a 50-year-old man in the back row and ushered him out of the courtroom. That man had a warrant from 1994, in Sarasota County, so they took him into custody. That's a sure way to get out of jury duty.

By lunch, they were down to 53 people. After lunch, the judge excused five more.

Jonchuck sat beside his lawyer, following the proceedings, crossing each name off a diagram.

The prosecutor asked whether any of the prospective jurors had been victims of a crime, whether anyone in their family had committed a violent crime, what they know about psychiatry or psychology, how they feel about law enforcement officers — and lawyers.

The defense attorney asked what they thought about premeditated murder and the concept of intention. Some seem confused, raising their hands to ask questions. Others nodded as if they understood.

At 5:30, the judge gave everyone a break. She said deputies would make a pot of coffee. The prospective jurors were allowed to turn on their phones, to check in with family and work. The lawyers ate power bars.

Finally, at 6:50, everyone came back into the courtroom. "If I call your name, please go sit in the jury box," said the judge. Nine men and seven women filed into the leather seats. "Thank you very much. … We're very grateful you all showed up. Some of the questions, I'm sure, were troublesome and soul-searching and brought up bad memories. We appreciate it."

The trial starts Monday at 1 p.m.

Staff writers Dan Sullivan and Zachary Sampson contributed to this story. Contact Lane DeGregory at Follow @LaneDeGregory. Contact Josh Solomon at Follow @ByJoshSolomon.