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  1. Florida

The trial of John Jonchuck Day 1: It begins

Jury selection is expected to take as many as five days. We’ll provide live updates on the process.


LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (5:11 p.m.):

That’s it for today. Continue asking questions in the comments below if you have them. We’ll post today’s story here when it’s up.

So far, 13 people remain from the first group of prospective jurors who are now on the shortlist. Judge and attorneys are trying to get to 70, and then those people will go through even more questions. Some of them will be selected for the jury.

Court is dismissed. Deputies lead Jonchuck out of the courtroom, back to the jail next door.

LANE AND ZACK (4:57 p.m.):

Another 18 people just excused. The rest, Helinger said, should return to court at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow to continue this process.

Judge tells them: When you go home tonight, don’t tell your friends or family “anything at all.”

LANE AND ZACK (4:51 p.m.):

Now we’re coming down to scheduling concerns. The court is behind the pace Helinger had hoped to hit. While the prospective jurors are out of the room, judge is talking to attorneys trying to figure out what to do.

She said it’s too late to cancel the pool that is supposed to come in tomorrow morning. But they could try to cancel the afternoon and have the people who do not finish in this batch come back at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow. They also could start a half-hour earlier tomorrow morning.

They’ll keep chugging along, she said, until they get 70 people on the shortlist, who are candidates to serve on the Jonchuck jury.

At 4:55 p.m., the people from this group of potential jurors files back in, some grumbling, some laughing, most looking tired.

ZACK (4:48 p.m.):

Court is still in recess so posting links again for people hitting this page for the first time.

Timeline and who’s who

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

The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

The trial of John Jonchuck: Why we’ll be there every day

LANE (4:38 p.m.):

When Helinger asked if anyone had been exposed to media coverage of the case, about half of the prospective jurors raised their hands. A red-headed man in the back row asked, “What do you mean by exposure? Like, even just headlines?”

“Yes,” said the judge.

“Then I have,” the man said.

Now for a 10-minute break.

John Jonchuck, center (light blue shirt), appears before Judge Chris Helinger during the first day of jury selection. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
LANE (4:28 p.m.):

More people explaining why serving on this jury could be difficult...

Woman in blue blouse is in night school at 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, works days

Woman in orange dress runs heart machine in surgery

Woman with headband started new job, can’t miss work

Woman in striped blouse takes care of her mom, can’t miss work

Man in blue polo works at hospital supervising lab

Another woman: A month off work would devastate me financially

Man with ponytail takes care of his parents and works two jobs

Four weeks away is just too much for many people.

LANE (4:10 p.m.):

As the judge reads the indictment, Jonchuck looks down and doesn’t react. Afterwards, he leans toward his lawyer and whispers something. A yellow legal pad waits by his left hand. The diagram of potential jurors is laid out in front of him on the desk.

More than half of the potential jury pool says the month-long trial would be a hardship.

One woman has to help relative with a walker, would need a nurse to help.

A man said this would put a financial burden on his family.

A man with a blonde ponytail is getting married in 10 days, on March 30.

A man with a black goatee has three doctors’ appointments with specialists.

A woman has two kids and it would be a financial burden.

A woman with a flowered headband runs a daycare, children depend on her.

Woman set to close on a house at the end of April.

A man with a white goatee’s daughter is going through chemo out of state. (excused)

Woman in denim hat and green sweatshirt takes care of her mother

A man in a blue button-up shirt has arthritis in his back, not sure he can make it.

A man with a shaved head and glasses works part-time, needs income.

A woman in a black sweater goes to physical therapy, and does HR for her company.

Another woman just had colon surgery, missed five weeks of work already.

A woman in a purple sweater owns a small landscaping business, with five employees.

A woman from Puerto Rico, wearing a red t-shirt, “No habla Ingles.”

Man in green shirt, it’s personal.

White-haired man also approaches the bench.

Woman in gray blouse is opening three businesses, husband needs knee surger.y

Man in red shirt has disabled spouse and blind mother-in-law who depends on him.

Young woman with sparkly barrette is a housekeeper, worried about cleaning her building.

Woman in print blouse, due April 23 … “We might be done, but …”

ZACK (3:45 p.m.):

When the judge questions potential jurors in a group in the courtroom, the physical arrangement is reversed. Instead of facing Helinger, the attorneys and Jonchuck sit so they’re looking at the audience as people raise their hands to respond.

The next batch was just sworn in. Helinger said, “Welcome to the criminal justice system...” They were supposed to start this group at 1 p.m., she said, and it’s now quarter to 4 p.m.

JOSH (3:37 p.m.):

Before inviting into the courtroom the next batch of 61 prospective jurors, Helinger reviewed the names one the list. One she recognized, someone who knows her son. The judge asked the lawyers if they would excuse him. No objection from either side.

ZACK (3:17 p.m.):

That individual voir dire is over. It’s unclear how many of the 17 remaining prospective jurors from this morning were shortlisted. The audio cut out a couple of times. If we get an exact number, we’ll share it here. Court is taking a break until 3:30 pm. This afternoon, another 61 candidates for the Jonchuck jury will be questioned.

LANE AND ZACK (2:52 p.m.):

Prosecutor Doug Ellis just pressed one juror who said, “It’s hard for me to understand how someone could do that to their own child. But if there were insanity involved, that would change the story.”

And: “I would feel more comfortable knowing that someone who did that was not in their right mind.”

Ellis wanted to know if that meant the man would be more inclined to side with the defense. Man said he could be fair.

Ultimately, he was added to the shortlist of people who will come back later this week for further questioning.

JOSH AND ZACK (2:43 p.m.):

Good question from below -- Is the public allowed in the courtroom to see the process of picking the jury? Is the courtroom full?

The courtroom is not full, it’s mostly jurors in there, and a lot of this questioning is happening in a side room, so there’s nothing to see. But yes, public could sit in. Right now, the jurors waiting for their turn at individual voir dire are just reading, chewing gum, fidgeting. Not much tension in Courtroom 1. The judge, lawyers and Jonchuck are all in a separate conference room.

ZACK (2:27 p.m.):

Predictably, the defense is asking a lot of the questions in this section of voir dire, which is directly tied to the argument they’re expected to make. They’re pushing people: Can you consider insanity? Does the fact that a child was killed make a difference in how you look at the case?

A big piece of jury selection will circle these themes, of open-mindedness and the strong feelings many have when they first hear that Jonchuck dropped Phoebe, his daughter, off a bridge.

ZACK AND LANE (2:19 p.m.):

Potential juror was just excused. He said he works in mental health field and might not be fair to defense in this case, it’s “too close to home.”

“I don’t really like my job," he said.

So far, though, most people have made the shortlist to come back.

LANE AND ZACK (1:57 p.m.):

Another prospective juror on the shortlist (now four). He said he has family members in mental institutions but could be open to hearing all sides of the Jonchuck case.

LANE (1:56 p.m.):

We had a question below -- How is the overall feeling in the courtroom? Tense?

It’s kind of neutral ... the jurors don’t seem to be reacting much ... Jonchuck is strangely calm and quiet ... the lawyers don’t seem agitated or even aggressive with each other ... the judge seems to be deferring to their concerns on both sides

ZACK (1:51 p.m.):

Three people now are on the shortlist, two men and one woman.

When they enter the room, Helinger asks if they want to read the jury instructions themselves or have her read them aloud. People have different preferences.

The last prospective juror was kept longer when she told the judge and lawyers her sister was murdered 26 years ago but the case remains unsolved. Helinger said she had to ask more questions because “it’s difficult to get a jury for this case.”

She asked if the woman could be fair in a trial about the killing of a 5-year-old girl. The woman said: “I do believe so.”

John Jonchuck, left, talks with defense attorney Greg Williams while appearing before Judge Chris Helinger during the first day of jury selection in his trial. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
LANE (1:38 p.m.):

Jonchuck looks young, with his hair slicked back and his prominent chin well shaved. He has seemed serene through most of the proceedings, whispering to his male lawyer, taking notes on a diagram of prospective jurors, scanning the courtroom to watch people’s faces. He has turned to face the judge when she has spoken, and remained silent and still. He has not interacted with his female defense attorneys at all.

In jail, he has been compliant too, taking his medications, eating his meals, showering -- a stark contrast to the first time he was behind bars in Pinellas County, when he ripped a mattress, threw food at a deputy and hurled a blood pressure machine at a nurse.

The courtroom was mostly empty, except for potential jurors. Four deputies in green uniforms stood in front of Jonchuck, behind him, and just inside the door of Courtroom 1.

Jonchuck’s parents, uncles and former roommates are on the witness list, and may have been sequestered until they testify. But no one came to court to be there for Jonchuck.

ZACK (1:33 p.m.):

Important procedural note. Some of the people who make it through questioning today will be asked to come back Wednesday morning (unless they get a call giving them another date or time). That last juror “made the short list so far," Helinger said.

“I wouldn’t turn on the TV news, or go online and look at the local news, in fact I would order you not to do that ... all the social media avenues,” she tells him.

He’s still, at this point, a potenital juror. He’s not in yet. This is a lengthy process.

ZACK (1:25 p.m.):

A little back and forth between lawyers and Helinger, not in front of potential jurors. Defense says people should be asked about their personal feelings on the insanity defense.

Just asking if people can follow the rules is not enough, they say, because who is going to tell a judge they won’t follow the law?

First man is called back in to ask for his feelings. He says he has zero experience with legal insanity, would be limited to what is said in court.

ZACK (1:20 p.m.):

If you want a quick refresher on the case, here are some links.

Timeline and who’s who

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

The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

The trial of John Jonchuck: Why we’ll be there every day

ZACK (1:15 p.m.):

Back into individual voir dire, meaning people are being questioned individually in a conference room outside of the courtroom.

Prospective jurors are being given a shortened version of the jury instructions relating to the not guilty by reason of insanity defense, which Josh explained below. I’ll repost:

One of the questions Helinger is asking jurors in private is if they can set aside what they know and consider an insanity defense. At least one prospective juror said they would need the definition of that word.

Even though it has its place in common vernacular, “insanity” in this context is a legal term. The parameters for proving insanity can be found in the jury instructions that jurors will have to consider when coming to a verdict. Technically, insanity has a two-pronged definition:

First, the defendant must have a “mental infirmity, disease or defect." Then, because of his condition, he either didn’t know what he was doing when he committed a crime, or didn’t understand that it was wrong.

Could you follow that defense, the judge asks?

First potential juror: “Yes.”

That’s the issue at hand now. Basically, here’s a sheet of the rules, can you follow them?

ZACK (1:05 p.m.):

We’re about to come back from break. Helinger clarifies that 17 people are left after morning. There are more questions coming in voir dire though.

And another 61 people in an afternoon panel for questioning. A reminder, the court will likely go through hundreds of candidates before the lawyers and judge agree on a jury.

If you have questions, please comment below and we’ll try to answer.

Pinellas-Pasco circuit court judge Chris Helinger gives instructions to potential jurors. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
JOSH (12:15 p.m.):

The individual questioning has ended, for now. Here’s rundown of the numbers.

The jury panel started with 55. We counted 17 that were excused due to life circumstances.

Of the remaining 38, 27 said they had prior knowledge of the case. That group was whittled down to seven.

Those seven join the 11 jurors who said they had no knowledge of the case. That means from 55, 18 remain. And that’s before any of the more personal questioning.

This is going to take awhile.

ZACK (12:10 p.m.):

Inidividual voir dire concluded for now. It took place in a standard conference room. Prosecutors and defense attorneys were there, with the judge, and Jonchuck. This is his trial, and he has a legal right to be there, as with every court proceeding.

They’re taking a break now, but first, Helinger noted it was pretty easy to screen people. “I can tell by the look on their face when they walk in," she said.

JOSH (12:05 p.m.):

One of the questions Helinger is asking jurors in private is if they can set aside what they know and consider an insanity defense. At least one prospective juror said they would need the definition of that word.

Even though it has its place in common vernacular, “insanity” in this context is a legal term. The parameters for proving insanity can be found in the jury instructions that jurors will have to consider when coming to a verdict. Technically, insanity has a two-pronged definition:

First, the defendant must have a “mental infirmity, disease or defect." Then, because of his condition, he either didn’t know what he was doing when he committed a crime, or didn’t understand that it was wrong.

ZACK (12:00 p.m.):

Another hurdle here, which is part of why we’re covering this trial so intensely, is the effect news of Phoebe’s death has had on people in Tampa Bay. A number of jurors who know about the case say they simply cannot be impartial.

Like one man, who said he had heard that Jonchuck “threw his baby off a bridge.”

Judge asked if he could he be open-minded to an insanity plea? The man paused. “I got a couple grandkids. Probably not.”

ZACK (11:55 a.m.)

We’ve had a couple more people come through who said they know about the case but could consider a not guilty by reason of insanity defense.

One said he heard about the trial on the radio today coming into court.

Judge asked if he had formed an opinion. “I think it’s going to be a tough case,” he said.

Another said he’s read sporadically about the case, including in the last week.

“It’s not a question of guilt but whether or not he was sane at the time,” he explained.

Could he consider an insanity defense?

“Yes, I think what I would need is the definition of insanity.”

JOSH (11:50 a.m.):

Don’t forget that you can pose questions in the comments and we’ll do our best to answer.

LANE (11:46 a.m.):

Here’s what’s interesting about individual voir dire. It’s not if they know, or even what they know … it’s whether they could set that aside and consider only the evidence.

JOSH (11:45 a.m.):

Some legal analysis here. As Zack noted in a previous post, claiming Jonchuck was insane at the time of the crime basically concedes to the jury that he did it. The argument, though, is that he didn’t know what he was doing, or didn’t know it was wrong.

So, if a juror is convinced Jonchuck committed the crime but is open minded about insanity, should that juror be dismissed or allowed to stay?

It’s an interesting question. Jonchuck, like all defendants at trial, is presumed innocent, and it’s incumbent on the prosecution to prove he did it. So a juror who has already made up his or her mind about whether Jonchuck did it is basically giving the state a pass on proving its case. Proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt may feel like a formality in this case, but it’s a cornerstone of our justice system.

We’ll see if those who have already made up their minds that Jonchuck did it are dismissed.

ZACK (11:39 a.m.)

Another man up for questioning. He said he was working at marina the day Phoebe died, saw EMS who had responded after her body was recovered.

Later, he said, he talked to his wife: “I said the wrong person went over the bridge.”

Judge asks, could he set that aside and make a decision based on insanity defense?

“No. Because I don’t believe it.”

ZACK (11:34 a.m.):

Another juror just came in, said he heard news of the trial as recently as two days ago.

What does he know? That Jonchuck “heard voices in his head to throw the child over the bridge.”

Could you set that aside and render a verdict based on what you heard in the courtroom? “Yes.”

Read about what Jonchuck said re: those voices here.

LANE (11:26 a.m.):

The judge asked each prospective juror what they had heard, when, and whether they could put it aside and consider the case only on its evidence. So far, all four have said no. “This could be problematic,” Helinger said.

ZACK (11:22 a.m.):

Here’s a unique issue in this trial.

The defense plans to make an argument Jonchuck should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. That means they’ll essentially concede that he dropped Phoebe off the bridge, killing her, but that he did not know the difference between right and wrong when he did it.

So if a juror says they believe he killed his daughter, does that mean they should be excluded? Or could they still potentially be fit to consider the insanity claim?

Helinger talks it through with attorneys, and defense points out this is still a first-degree murder trial, meaning the prosecution will need to prove Jonchuck dropped Phoebe. Then the defense will introduce the issue of insanity, and the prosecution will have a rebuttal.

Josh broke down the legal process here.

ZACK (11:12 a.m.):

Individual voir dire is happening now, which means the jurors who said they had prior knowledge of the case are being asked further questions, in private, to determine just how much they know. And more than that, if the knowledge they have would leave them unable to make a decision on guilt or innocence based only on what they hear in court during trial.

First juror says she has read news articles about the case since its happened and knows “insanity is a part of what possibly might happen.”

Helinger asks: “Would you be able to set aside everything you know about the case” and limit your decision-making to just what you heard in the courtroom?

Woman says, “I don’t think so." Said the image of the killing is “just too horrendous.”

Next person says she last heard about the case in 2015 through social media.

This will continue, slowly, for a while. It’s part of why hundreds of people were summoned this week to serve as jury candidates for the Jonchuck trial.

JOSH AND LANE (10:55 a.m.):

The important question Helinger wanted to ask the remaining jury pool?

By a show of hands, “Has anybody been exposed to pretrial publicity about this case in any way.” Media, newspaper, Twitter, blogs, anything.

We count 19 hands go up. It looks like roughly half, maybe more, of the remaining jurors in the room.

Hundreds of newspapers and TV stations throughout the country carried the story when it happened, and included photos of 5-year-old Phoebe, smiling. Because of the notoriety, this will be an ongoing issue. Jurors who know about the case could be prejudiced for or against Jonchuck, and it could affect impartiality. That’s why picking a jury could take all week

Helinger is going hand by hand. One man said he was at the marina the night it happened. Helinger sternly reminded him that these are yes or no questions. More questions about their specific knowledge of the case will likely come in a separate room. Talking openly about the case could taint the whole jury pool.

LANE (10:45 a.m.):

Jonchuck is taking notes on the diagram of prospective jurors, crossing out each name as the judge excuses people. He’s left-handed.

The judge says the next set of questions will be about pretrial publicity. One prospective juror is holding a copy of the Tampa Bay Times under his elbow.

JOSH (10:40 a.m.):

With the prospective jurors out of the courtroom, Helinger and the lawyers reviewed the list of those who raised concerns. Many were let go without objection from the defense or state. Some were not let go, despite the fact that they raised concerns.

Below are the reasons jurors were let go, and the reasons some were not:

Cruise with mother and sister -- excused

North Carolina trip -- excused

Tickets bought to New York for a Baptism -- excused

Trip to Texas -- excused

Financial hardship -- excused

Financial hardship -- excused

Child care -- excused

Daughter had an emergency C-section and they’re going to North Carolina -- excused

Trip -- excused

One person runs a daycare business -- excused

The best reason for excusal, from Helinger: “His life seems extremely complicated.” -- excused

Child care concerns -- excused

Running a small non profit and organizing a large event -- not excused

Diabetes and trouble with her insulin -- not excused, as judge says there’s excellent emergency care at the courthouse

Financial hardship, the man who cut hair and can’t reschedule appointments and has no savings -- excused

International vacation -- excused

Transportation problems -- not excused

A guardian who makes decisions for those with mental health issues -- excused

College student -- excused

A man who runs a restaurant, Daquiri Shak on Madeira Beach -- excused

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Chris Helinger, center, has a discussion at the bench with all of the attorneys in the John Jonchuck murder trial on the first day of jury selection. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
ZACK (10:25 a.m.)

This process will repeat until we get to a smaller pool of people who will be asked more case-specific questions. Some will be taken into a side-room. There’s a microphone in there that hopefully will work and feed audio to the media room in the courthouse, where I’m sitting. Josh and Lane are in the courtroom, capturing the conversations in the initial exclusion.

And now for a 10 minute break. Helinger tells jurors not to discuss the case.

LANE (10:14 a.m.):

One woman has four kids, including a 2-year-old, and has no relative to help her care for them, and her 7-year-old is sick.

Another’s daughter had an emergency C-section yesterday and she wants to fly to North Carolina to see her on Wednesday.

A man owns a beach restaurant and the next six weeks are the most crucial time of the year. The daiquiri shack …

A man has a 1 and 4 year old he picks up from daycare while his wife works. She’s a veterinarian, so she has appointments all booked out.

Another woman is self-employed so it would be a financial hardship.

A woman in the front row has a business trip coming up for a trade show and a trip to New York for her sister’s baptism.

One woman shares a car so transportation might be a problem. “Do you uber?” Yes, but that might be a bit of a financial hardship.

One woman manages eight guardian cases of people who are mentally impaired and suffer from dementia.

A man in the back row is going out of the country April 2, it’s already paid for.

One woman made a commitment to work in a national park in Wyoming.

Another man asks to approach the bench for a confidential discussion. He’s the third to do that so far today.

LANE AND JOSH (10:00 a.m.):

Let the exclusions begin.

One woman runs a small non-profit, “I’m not sure what I would do.”

Another is leaving on a cruise on Monday. It’s been booked for 2-3 months. Going with mother and another person.

A woman has family coming in April 15. “I’m sure hoping the trial will be over by then,” said the judge.

Man works at a coffee shop, going on vacation next week to N.C., plane tickets already paid for.

Woman in headphones just started insulin, “I’m really confused right now.”

Another woman going to Texas on family vacation. “Could you delay your trip?” asked the judge. No.

A male hairdresser is self-employed and is booked over the next month and a half. He’s the only one in his home who pays the bills. “I don’t have savings to pay bills.”

One woman’s English isn’t good, so she gets released.

Another woman has trouble understanding, and her husband is in a facility with dementia. She gets released too. “God bless,” she says, waving as she walks out of the courtroom.

Only 40 percent of people summoned actually show up for the trial, the judge told the jury pool. It is a big deal, so I commend you on that.

One woman on dialysis for three days a week. “You can’t do it late at night, can you?” asked the judge. No. She gets excused too.

A college student in Tarpon can’t miss more than four classes or she gets dropped. “They shouldn’t penalize you for being in a jury,” said the judge. The young woman sat back down.

One woman has doctors’ appointments, and people coming into town in April.

As the judge hears people’s concerns, more and more hands go up.

LANE (9:51 a.m.):

Jonchuck looks up and scans the rows of solemn faces while the judge asks if any of the prospective jurors know lawyers by name or face.

Helinger reads indictment: It’s nothing more than a piece of paper that informs us all of what Mr. Jonchuck is charged with: Unlawfully and from a pre-medidated design to affect the death of Phoebe Jonchuck…

One juror worked at detention center a month ago, so judge dismisses her. Two people need headphones to hear better.

JOSH (9:50 a.m.):

Helinger welcomes the jury and makes some opening announcements:

“The case set for trial for today, and for sometime after today, is the state against John Jonchuck Jr.”

“In a few moments, we’re going to start a process called voir dire. It’s a french term, as many of you know, and it means to speak the truth.”

“The lawyers are trying to pick the best, most qualified jurors they possibly can.”

Helinger introduced the lawyers and Jonchuck to the jury pool.

“Anyone recognize Mr. Doug Ellis or Mr. Paul Bolan by face or by name?” They work for Bernie McCabe, Pinellas Pasco State Attorney. Anybody know him, too? she asked.

“The defense lawyers are Ms. Jane McNeill, Ms. Jessica Manuele, and Mr. Greg Williams. Anybody know them by name or face?”

“Mr. Jonchuck, will you rise please.”

LANE (9:43 a.m.):

A deputy calls in prospective jurors, who had been waiting in the hall, and sits them in seven rows of wooden benches on right side of court, facing the prosecutors. They walk in slowly, some carrying tote bags and paperbacks, others with water bottles and backpacks, and sit 10 to a bench.

They will call a panel of jurors, about 50 to 60, every morning and afternoon until the jury is seated. We could easily go through hundreds of candidates before finding 12 and some alternates.

LANE (9:30 a.m):

Some background on the questions about Jonchuck’s mental health.

He has a history of violence, drug use and mental illness, dating back to his teens. He was first arrested at age 12, for hitting his father, which he said was in self-defense. His family says he has been Baker Acted 27 times. His mother, and Phoebe’s mother, also have been Baker Acted. Read more about that in my story, The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck.

JOSH (9:25 a.m.)

The judge addressed potential testimony from Emily Lazarou, a doctor who is expected to testify for prosecutors that Jonchuck was not insane. Helinger said she will not allow the doctor to call him a psychopath, as Lazarou did in her written report after two interviews of Jonchuck. We have reported on the defense’s opposition to Lazarou’s involvement in the trial here.

Helinger also asked Jonchuck’s lead attorney, Jessica Manuele, if the defense had made any plea offers to the prosecution. Manuele said the defense at one point offered 25 years in exchange for a guilty plea. She said prosecutors made clear they would not accept a deal.

ZACK (9:25 a.m.):

Some housekeeping here. If you’re following this blog, we’ll be updating regularly throughout the day. There will be no live-streaming during jury selection. If you have a question, we’d love to hear it. Please comment below. We will check often, then provide answers in the body of the blog. A big hurdle that should exclude a bunch of prospective jurors immediately? Being in position to spare a month for a trial.

ZACK (9:10 a.m.):
John Jonchuck appears before Judge Chris Helinger during the first day of jury selection. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

John Jonchuck just entered the courtroom wearing a blue dress shirt, navy slacks and a tie. Judge Chris Helinger is running through a few questions with him now.

How old are you?



She asks him how he would characterize his mental health issues.

Jonchuck says he was told at the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center that he suffers from schizoaffective disorder .


Helinger asks if, to his knowledge, Jonchuck has ever been found mentally incompetent to stand trial.

No ma’am. (He has).


Flanked his lawyers, Jonchuck says he used to work in telemarketing and insurance.

Helinger, finishing, asks whether he knows there’s only one penalty if you get convicted of first-degree murder.

Yes, Jonchuck answers.



The murder trial of John Jonchuck is set to begin today at 9 a.m. with jury selection.

Jonchuck, now 29, is charged with first-degree murder in the Jan. 8, 2015 killing of his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe. Jonchuck is accused of dropping her from the Dick Misener Bridge near the Sunshine Skyway, 62 feet into Tampa Bay. She drowned.

Because of the notoriety of the case, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger has called up to 500 prospective jurors. Picking a jury could take all week.

If convicted, Jonchuck will be handed an automatic lifetime prison sentence, as prosecutors stopped seeking the death penalty last summer. Jonchuck’s team of public defenders hopes to convince the jury to find him not guilty by reason of insanity. If that’s the verdict, Jonchuck will spend years, and likely the rest of his life, in a state treatment facility.

After jury selection, prosecutors will present evidence to prove Jonchuck is responsible for Phoebe’s death. Then the defense will present evidence that Jonchuck is insane. After that, prosecutors will be able to rebut that evidence. The defense may have their own chance at rebuttal.

All that testimony means the trial could take four weeks.

Each day, our trial coverage team will live blog events straight from the courtroom.

Visit to read up on the incident, the fallout and all the pretrial coverage. And that’s where you’ll find the link to each day’s live blog.