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The trial of John Jonchuck, Day 2: Jury selection continues

After day one, the court proceedings are already a little behind schedule. Stay here for updates.
Defendant John Jonchuck appears before Judge Chris Helinger during the second day of jury selection in his trial. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Mar. 19
Updated Mar. 20
JOSH, LANE AND ZACK (6:07 p.m.)

We’ll start again tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. So far, 35 people have made the shortlist. The judge is hoping to get 70. So we’re halfway there. Thanks for following.

JOSH (6:04 p.m.)

A follow-up: The woman who was crying earlier was just let go. She told the judge she had family coming into town, including one relative who is ill. She was worried she would be deprived of spending time with them.

ZACK AND LANE (5:58 p.m.)

About to wrap up for the day, but they did not get through individual questioning of all the people who were originally called in yesterday afternoon. Some will have to come back again tomorrow at 9 a.m. before they even know if they made the shortlist.

Trying to figure out who comes back. the judge flips through paperwork and says, “So I’m confused.”

It’s taking an average of eight minutes to interview each prospective juror.

She sends the pool home for the night. “It’s hard to pick a jury.”

LANE (5:29 p.m.)

A man just came through questioning who was in the military for 20-plus years and then the Peace Corps for seven.

He said he had managed healthcare facilities where he had encountered people with mental health conditions, some of whom he’d consider insane.

“As a nurse, one of our primary strengths we bring to the situation is empathy, I consider myself a patient advocate, one of our strongest skills is to understand how a patient may be acting in a given situation," he said.

Judge: Would you be able to set that empathy aside and abide by the law?

Man: “Yes, I understand there has to be a burden of proof. I mean, there’s also a part of me, I’ve sat in on a court martial, I’ve done two JAG investigations, so I could find a person guilty despite how well I could put myself into that person’s situation.”

The judge asked the man to step outside for a minute. The state wanted to strike that man out, saying he’s predisposed to side with the defense because of his background.

“He’s already leaning toward the defendant because of the empathy he has,” said prosecutor Doug Ellis.

The defense disagreed. “He said he could follow the law. … When jurors are given the instruction on sympathy, he’s expressing part of his personality is he had an empathetic personality, that’s not a disqualification for a jury.”

The judge decided to excuse the man. “I have a reasonable doubt as to whether he could be fair and impartial,” she said.

ZACK (5:26 p.m.)

Judge Helinger, greeting a man who comes into the conference room for individual questioning: "I apologize for the horrific delay.”

LANE (5:20 p.m.)

One man said he could “reasonably come to the conclusion on insanity … I would be able to, but there’s that unique nagging in the back of my mind …” Having a police officer testify might help, he said.

Judge: Would you want a police officer to testify as to the mental state of the defendant? What would you want to hear from law enforcement on that issue?

Man: If they could give an account of how the defendant was at that time, as well as afterwards, it would help clarify if there’s any sort of disconnect.

State: Experts and non-experts will help you make your decision. If you didn’t hear from law enforcement, would you be able to make that decision?

Man: I’d need to hear what qualifies them to be experts.

Judge: I’m going to excuse you. You’re free to leave.

LANE (5:13 p.m.)

The potential jurors come back. One was crying in the hall, though no one knows why. Another 25 people still need to be questioned.

ZACK (4:51 p.m.)

We’re taking a 15 minute break. Another man was just questioned.

Could he consider an insanity defense? “There are insane people in the world, so yeah, you would have to listen to the facts, be open to that,” he said.

He was told to come back Friday.

LANE (4:40 p.m.)

Echoing the concern of a female prospective juror this morning, one man asked what would happen if Jonchuck was declared not guilty by reason of insanity. “Do we just let them go if that happens?”

The judge replied by reading the jury instructions: “If he is found not guilty by reason of insanity, the judge would determine if he needs to be committed to a mental hospital, given other out-patient options, or released.”

The man hesitated, then said, “If somebody killed somebody, I’d hate to think about them coming back out on the street, even if it was due to insanity. I don’t know if it was a one-time thing or if it could be on-going. … I’d hate to think about him being released.”

The judge asked the man to come back Friday.

JOSH AND LANE (4:35 p.m.)

For most of the private questioning, the state attorneys haven’t asked many questions. But now one asked about a man’s dad, who was a psychiatrist, and the defense got upset, complaining that the state is asking too many follow-up questions.

With the court running so far behind, Helinger is imposing rules on the lawyers during individual juror questioning. The lawyers were told to limit their follow-ups. Helinger pointed out several instances in which she said defense attorney Jane McNeill went off topic with her questions.

Judge Chris Helinger during the second day of jury selection Tuesday discusses scheduling issues with the attorneys. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

ZACK (4:08 p.m.)

A potential juror just had a long round of questioning that illustrated one of the hurdles in finding qualified people to serve in this case.

The defense is asking whether people would consider an insanity claim differently knowing the victim was a child. That’s prompting a lot of long pauses and contemplation. It’s an intellectual exercise with major consequences.

This man who said he could consider insanity, “open-minded on everything,” later said a child victim would make him contemplate the issue differently.

“I would have to say yes. Because number one, the child is defenseless, and really doesn’t have any way of fighting back to whatever the situation may be, whether it be abuse whether it be a dog bite or something like that,” he said.

A defense attorney pressed him on whether he would be less willing to consider insanity. “No. Depending on the circumstance of the situation ... I would be still open-minded to it, but I would be, since it was a child, I would have to weigh my thoughts on the evidence.”

Later, he added, “Depending on what the evidence is, there’s gotta be some reason why this happened. I’m open-minded to hear both sides of the story.”

The defense lawyer asked if he would demand a higher standard of evidence than clear and convincing, which is what the jury instruction says is needed for a not guilty by reason of insanity finding. “Somewhat, yes,” the man said.

The judge later pushed further for more clarity, asking if he would weigh evidence more carefully with a child. “Yes. ... A little bit finer, with a fine-toothed comb.”

He was excused.

ZACK (4:01 p.m.)

One man just made it through to shortlist and Helinger ran through rules with him. Avoid media. Don’t talk about the case.

“If you go into a gas station, there might be some papers around,” the judge said. Don’t look at them.

If friends or family ask: “You might be on the jury you might not,” she said. Don’t tell them what case it is.

He’ll be back Friday.

ZACK (3:45 p.m.)

Some people coming back Thursday need paperwork to excuse them from work again. Their summons was good for today. “I know it’s arduous,” Helinger said.

Someone asks when they plan to pick the jury. “Probably Friday,” Helinger said.

But she said, that’s just a “hope.” The timing is fluid.

Helinger had hoped to have the jury picked by Thursday.

LANE (3:40 p.m.)

Some of the more interesting excuses from this last round of hardship dismissals:

-This Friday I’m the best man in a wedding.

-I have two young children, 10-year-old twins, and their mother passed away, I have to be able to pick them up at school and they have some behavioral issues because of her sudden death. And I have a chronic back condition, so I can’t sit for long periods of time.

-English isn’t my first language. I’m a music teacher and I have a program coming up. I have to get my kids ready for the show, and a lot of my kids have special needs, so they need extra help.

-I’m taking care of my fiance’s mother who is a quadriplegic. And I’m a dog trainer, I have 10 to 15 dogs at my house and there’s no way I can leave them alone for that long period of time.

ZACK (3:30 p.m.)

The judge is releasing the remaining prospective jurors from this group until Thursday at 9 a.m. Those 34 people left over from yesterday are here and waiting to be individually questioned.

At this point, a lot of shuffling because jury selection is taking so long.

“This isn’t the final cut,” Helinger tells this group.

She tells people not to communicate with friends or family about the case, part of the standard jury instruction, and to avoid stories about the Jonchuck trial. So they’ve come for jury duty and don’t know quite when it’ll end, or if they’ll make the jury.

LANE (3:05 p.m.)

The judge has heard from all the people with financial hardships. Now she and the lawyers are conferring at the bench to see who gets excused from this round of jury selection.

The judge just excused 17 more people for hardships.

Next up is exposure to pretrial publicity. The fewest number of hands went up this round, by far. Fewer than 15.

JOSH (2:45 p.m.)

As afternoon jury selection gets under way, take a moment to get reacquainted with our previous coverage of the Jonchuck case.

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

On first day of the John Jonchuck trial, questions focus on insanity and notoriety

JOSH (2:40 p.m.)

John Jonchuck listened for the fourth time to the indictment he faces.

Grand jurors find that Jonchuck on Jan. 8, 2015 “unlawfully and from a premeditated design to effect the death of Phoebe Jonchuck, did throw or drop the said Phoebe Jonchuck from the Dick Misener Bridge,” read Judge Chris Helinger this afternoon.

His reaction has not changed.

Jonchuck looked down, blinked, looked up.

He appeared to display no emotion whatsoever.

LANE (2:25 p.m.):

We’re back.

Judge calls in next round of prospective jurors. “I’m going to be calling jury numbers in my sleep,” says a deputy. “Leading off, number 2191 … “

Jonchuck nods, mouth agape, while his lawyer explains something. Using hand-gestures, the attorney appears to be counting.

It’s a much smaller group of people. The clerk called 150 prospective jurors for this round, only 47 showed up.

“Only one thing is required of you,” said the judge. “Speak the truth.”

“We may not have a jury on this case until Friday,” said the judge.

“The trial might take a month.”

Prospective jurors look at each other, surprised. Some shake their heads.

“It’s going to be a long trial,” the judge said.

LANE, ZACK AND JOSH (1:13 p.m.):

We’re down to 28 people now on the shortlist, with the addition of 15 from the morning group. Court wants to get to 70. From that pool, they hope to pull a jury.

They’re taking a break until 2 p.m. to go through the new group this afternoon. Then they’ll bring in the 34 from yesterday. “Let’s try to speed it up,” said the judge.

LANE AND ZACK (1:04 p.m.):

One woman worries Jonchuck would use an insanity defense to “get off the hook.”

The judge sends her out for a minute to talk to the lawyers. The defense attorneys argue about what to tell the potential juror about what would happen if the defendant was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Defense: He doesn’t just get off punishment.

Judge: But he does escape punishment. He’s not punished. He’s treated.

They invite the woman back in, and the judge says, “If your verdict is that the defendant is not guilty by reason of insanity, that does not necessarily mean he’ll be released from custody. I’ll have to consider if he gets outpatient or what his treatment would be.”

They ask if the woman would be thinking about Jonchuck getting out of a mental health treatment facility when considering the case.

“Yes.”

She’s dismissed

LANE AND ZACK (12:52 p.m.):

We had to go back and listen to audio, but one woman left the conference room after questioning in tears or sobbing. She was distressed. Thinking about Phoebe dying, she had said: “I have a young nephew and niece. If my brother-in-law or their stepfather ever did anything like that I would literally ... I wouldn’t be able to restrain myself.” The judge worried about her crying in front of other jurors, but a deputy said she was composed by the time she reached the courtroom.

JOSH (12:50 p.m.):

Progress update: We have three more prospective jurors to question about their exposure to pretrial publicity and their feelings on the insanity defense. Then we’ll break for lunch. After that is when the acute scheduling issues come up. More than 30 prospective jurors from yesterday are returning this afternoon. Plus a whole new panel of 50-60. Given how long it’s taken to move through a panel, unclear how we’ll get through all 90 people today.

LANE (12:30 p.m.):

A retired man said he read all about the crime.

You know what they say, he said, "If it bleeds, it leads …”

He knows the whole “horrific” story. “I haven’t followed it. I’m not a crime person. … I don’t trust the media to do very good job of putting if out. I know they sensationalize stories. I could listen to the evidence. But if that’s actually a fact, that he dropped his daughter off the bridge, I would find that horrific. It could be because he’s really nuts. But it’s still a horrific thing to happen to 5-year-old child.”

“As I understand it, the state has to prove it" ... "So now the burden falls on you, the defense, to prove if that person was insane at the time he did it.”

He said he his background includes medical experience, and said there is such a thing as insanity. He could listen to the evidence and come to an insanity finding, even though the victim in this case is a child.

He was told to return later in the week for more questioning.

On his way out the door, he had a question of his own for the judge: "Can I tell my wife what case I’m on?"

No, she said. So it’s totally secret?

“Yes," the judge said. "You cannot discuss it. Or watch the news.”

LANE (12:23 p.m.):

The judge and a defense lawyer argue about whether to exclude people who become visibly emotional when they talk about the victim being a child. The judge seemed to think that meant they were being thoughtful. the defense lawyer said they might not be able to be neutral, and might have to be re-interviewed about their reactions down the road.

ZACK (12:16 p.m.)

Checking into this page for the first time? You can catch up on the case with these 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

LANE (12:11 p.m.):

In the media room on the courthouse first floor, a dozen reporters listen to the judge question prospective jurors privately. Each time someone says they heard about the case on Bay News 9, or Fox 13, they give a quiet victory shout. When potential jurors say they never watch TV or read the newspaper, a collective groan goes out. Who are these people who never get any news? One said, “I only get news from my phone.” Another said, “I only watch Netflix.”

Defendant John Jonchuck listens to potential jurors on the second day of jury selection Tuesday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
ZACK (11:52 a.m.):

A woman says she’s seen TV news mentioning the Jonchuck case. “I recall that they mentioned the defendant and that he had dropped his daughter over the side of the bridge.”

Judge: Could you put that aside and listen to evidence?

“I think so,” she said

“Can you do any better than I think so?” Helinger asked.

The woman replied: “I can.”

She said, too, she could consider an insanity defense. She’s told to come back for the shortlist Friday morning.

JOSH (11:42 a.m.):

When questioning the jurors, Assistant Public Defender Jane McNeill creates a hypothetical scenario for the prospective jurors.

“Picture you’re on another murder case down the hall,” McNeill starts.

Imagine, she says, that you’ve heard other defenses, including self-defense or misidentification, and you still come to the conclusion that the defendant is responsible for the crime.

“You with me?” she asked one prospective juror. “I think so,” the prospective juror nervously laughed.

Now, if after deciding the defendant committed the crime, you heard an insanity defense. Would you be willing to openly consider an insanity defense?

One particular prospective juror said she would be able to. She was ordered back Wednesday morning.

ZACK AND LANE (11:38 a.m.):

Man says he is a former firefighter and paramedic who worked in 9/11 and Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina. He said he had severe PTSD.

“I really don’t think I could sit through all that because I’m here to help people, you know?”

Helinger, before even asking a question: “I’m going to excuse you, sir.” Thanks him for being upfront.

ZACK (11:29 a.m.):

Some people who go into the conference room for individual questioning are clearly nervous. They’re sitting with a judge, a host of lawyers, and Jonchuck. At least one deputy in there, too.

One woman just entered, and Helinger said: “Did you say you were nervous?”

Later: “That’s understandable.”

ZACK (11:21 a.m.):

Woman just dismissed when she said she’s heard about the case but has not paid much attention to the mental health aspects of the story. “I kind of discount that," she said, and described such a defense defense as a “cop-out.”

Helinger asked: Could she rely on only evidence presented at court to make a decision?

Woman said: “I don’t think I’m capable of remaining objective.”

She apologized after being excused. Helinger stopped her, said, “There’s nothing to be sorry for.” She emphasized the woman had done nothing wrong by telling them the truth.

ZACK (11:08 a.m.):

Yesterday, potential jurors were being questioned in separate sessions, one about pretrial publicity and another about their ability to consider a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. Now the judge and lawyers are combining all of those issues into one session with each person from the pool.

ZACK (11:05 a.m.):

First person in here says she heard just what was said on the news. Could she be fair on this case? “I have grandchildren so it’s very hard.”

ZACK (10:59 a.m.):

If you’ve been following since yesterday, you know this means they’re about to move the questioning to the conference room, where the judge, lawyers and Jonchuck will also sit. This is called “individual sequestered voir dire.” Audio from the side-session is fed down to the media room in the courthouse, where I’ve been sitting while Lane and Josh stay in the courtroom upstairs. We cannot see what’s happening in that space, just hear it.

You can read more about how the process went yesterday here.

LANE (10:58 a.m.):

The judge asks: Have you been exposed to pretrial publicity in this case? More than half of the remaining people raise their hands.

“Only in the newspaper,” one woman said.

“That’s enough,” said the judge.

“We’re going to question everyone who has been exposed to pretrial publicity, one-by-one.”

LANE (10:54 a.m.):

Judge excuses seven more potential jurors. They look happy to be leaving.

LANE (10:51 a.m.):

Had a great question down below: Will this Jury be 12 plus alternates or 6 plus alternates.

The judge is going to pick 12 jurors. She hasn’t said how many alternates yet.

LANE (10:31 a.m.):

During a bathroom break, the judge and lawyers talk about who to dismiss for cause … the student, single mom with three kids, paid plane ticket, single mom to pick up kid, paid reservations, going to Europe, man with a cruise, boat captain, problems with husband and mother, financial hardship … another vacation.

LANE (10:10 a.m.):

More reasons from potential jurors as to why they should be dismissed...

Woman in teal dress: We have a pre-paid family trip, in a plane, with her husband’s family.

Woman in white shirt: Has to pick up her daughter at daycare and doesn’t have anyone to help.

Man in black dress shirt: I have a pre-paid vacation to Key West and Los Angeles, on a plane.

Man in yellow shirt: I have a trip to Europe planned, and my wife doesn’t work.

The whole third row raises their hands about not being able to commit to be at a trial for a month…

Man in blue rain jacket: I have to get allergy shots every two weeks. I got one yesterday.

Older man in checkered shirt: I have short-term memory loss from chemo. Don’t know if I’d be a benefit to anyone. I have to write notes to myself to turn off the stove. (Dismissed)

Man with mustache: I have a cruise in April.

Man in glasses: I’m a licensed boat captain. I have classes scheduled to renew my license in April in Fort Lauderdale.

LANE (9:56 a.m.):

Judge tells prospective jurors it is their civic duty to serve, and that it’s going to be a huge inconvenience to them. “This trial could last a month. The general hours are going to be 9 in the morning until 7 at night, but I am flexible,” she said. “I will make every effort to accommodate things that might come along in your life for the next month.”

Show of hands: Is it just not possible to serve? Not a tale of woe -- we have to get a jury to try this case.

About 75 percent of people raise their hands.

First up: College student can’t miss that much class.

Man in black shirt: It’s an inconvenience, not a financial hardship. Has to help wife.

Man in gray hoodie: Has to be at work early every day.

Man in black sweatshirt: It’s going to be hard for me to understand English.

Four other people raise their hands that English isn’t their first language. The judge dismisses them.

Defendant John Jonchuck appears before Judge Chris Helinger during the second day of jury selection Tuesday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
ZACK (9:55 a.m.)

A reminder, if you have questions, please ask them in the comments below and we’ll try to answer.

LANE (9:54 a.m.):

For the first time in more than 100 prospective jurors, someone alerted the judge that they know Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe.

The judge asks Jonchuck to stand, so prospective jurors can see him. He rises slowly, staring straight ahead. No one in the jury pool recognizes him.

JOSH AND LANE (9:48 a.m.):

Anyone can come through the courtroom during jury selection. Example no. 1 today: One prospective juror, Helinger said, “doesn’t know what planet he’s on.” She asked the lawyers if they wouldn’t mind excusing him. Everybody agreed.

That juror is facing his own criminal charge, the judge said, and is set for a competency hearing later this month.

LANE (9:45 a.m.):

Here come the prospective jurors. This pool seems to be, on average, younger than yesterday’s group.

JOSH (9:42 a.m.):

Daily update on Jonchuck’s night in the Pinellas County jail: He received a meal this morning at about 5 a.m. and then received his medication two hours later. So far, Jonchuck’s stay in the jail has been uneventful, a reversal from the last time he was was housed there. Back in 2016, jail logs noted that he threw a tantrum, ripping a mattress and throwing items at guards.

LANE AND ZACK (9:40 a.m.):

Jonchuck just entered the courtroom wearing a yellow dress shirt.

The judge greeted him, “Good morning, Mr. Jonchuck.” He nodded and sat in front of the deputy.

LANE (9:35 a.m.):

Jonchuck’s lawyers just said that he won’t be brought into court today until right before the potential jurors are seated.

ZACK (9:26 a.m.):

Still no potential jury pool in the courtroom yet because of this scheduling confusion. Note that Helinger said yesterday she’d hoped to begin opening statements in the trial as soon as Thursday or Friday. That clearly does not match up with this new timeline. Those 13 Lane mentioned had been scheduled to return tomorrow morning.

Now they wait until the end of the week, not sure if they’ll make the jury, but instructed to avoid media or conversations about the case.

LANE (9:10 a.m.):

The 13 people approved through the initial jury screening yesterday morning will come back Friday for further vetting.

The 34 remaining people from yesterday afternoon’s pool are being called back this afternoon. Only 21 of those said they had not been exposed to pretrial publicity. Those 34 will mix in with a fresh panel of 50 to 60 this afternoon for the individual questioning.

This morning’s pool is 55 new people, so they’ll start from the beginning.

Jonchuck is not yet in the courtroom.



Catch up on the first day of jury selection here.

Read the first day story here.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Chris Helinger will lead another day of jury selection in the trial of John Jonchuck, the man accused of killing his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, by dropping her off a bridge in January 2015.

On day one, 13 people made a shortlist out of more than 100 to appear in court. Some of those 100 will return for more questioning this afternoon. Others were dismissed because they could not make time for a four-week trial, knew too much about the notorious case already or expressed reservations about their abilities to fairly consider an insanity defense.

It was a moment long in coming, the first time in more than four years that Jonchuck had appeared publicly in anything other than jail coveralls. The day’s repeated rounds of questioning also confirmed just how difficult it will be to find an impartial jury in a case that stunned Tampa Bay.

Today’s proceedings are expected to begin at 9 a.m. If you have questions, please put them in the comments below.

Read more coverage of the case below:

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


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