The trial of John Jonchuck, Day 3: Behind schedule

The slow process of picking a jury is likely to push opening statements. Stay here for updates.
John Jonchuck appears before Judge Chris Helinger during the third day of jury selection on Wednesday at the Pinellas County Justice Center in Clearwater.  (SCOTT KEELER   |   Times)
John Jonchuck appears before Judge Chris Helinger during the third day of jury selection on Wednesday at the Pinellas County Justice Center in Clearwater. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published March 20, 2019|Updated March 20, 2019
JOSH (6:30 p.m.)

Final update for the night.

The day ends with 54 prospective jurors shortlisted. The goal remains 70. The court will have two more panels of jurors in for individual questioning tomorrow -- both panels are leftovers from earlier in the week. If they can get to the target number from those prospective jurors, they won’t need to call any more panels.

JOSH (5:54)

Lots of repetition now in the final few prospective jurors of the day. The judge asking jurors what they know about the case and whether they can disregard it all to keep an open mind at trial. And then whether or not they can fairly consider an argument of not guilty by reason of insanity.

We have about five jurors left for the day.

While it’s slow here in court, it’s a great time to catch up on our previous coverage of the 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

LANE (4:40 p.m.)

More from prospective jurors in the individual questioning:

“I know about the event, and the treatment Mr. Jonchuck has been undergoing for his mental illness. Being a father and a grandfather, and the charge is first-degree murder, someone has to be out of their mind,” said one man.

One of the defense’s arguments will be insanity, says the judge.

“Well, I understand the idea of state of mind and mental illness don’t mean the exact same thing. But there had to be something at that time that caused him to do this, not just that he’s having a bad day,” said the man. “I guess the problem I have right now is the presentation of defense of insanity and first-degree murder. My pre-conceived notion is that he was out of his mind. That’s just who I am. I’ll try to be objective. But I’ll see it, I’ll hear it, I’ll try to figure it out. As long as I make it to church by 6:30, I’ll be alright. I’d have difficulty convicting for pre-meditated first-degree. I’d have to hear evidence on both sides, and it would be a hard sell for me.”

The judge excuses him.

The next woman has never heard anything about the case. “I’m an EMT, first-responder, so I have a really difficult time being impartial.”

Would it be more difficult if the victim was a child? “Children and animals, yes. They get to me.”

She’s excused.

“My concern is sifting through all the evidence from the doctors and experts,” the next man says.

LANE (4:14 p.m.)

“I’m aware of the nature of the crime,” said a man. “I’m aware he had a number of encounters with law enforcement that day, and had issues with child services, issues with his wife.” He said he couldn’t ignore what he knew from reading the newspaper. So the judge let him go.

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The next woman said she heard on ABC when Jonchuck dropped his daughter off a bridge. “I recall from television what had happened, and that her body was recovered by a USF team, I believe.” She’s dismissed. (A search and rescue team from Eckerd College actually found Phoebe’s body.)


LANE (3:50 p.m.)

After the break, the judge calls each prospective juror back to a private room, one-by-one, to question them about what they had heard about the case, and what they thought about an insanity defense. The first man said, "I just don’t see how that defense would play in this situation.”

Then a woman wearing a surgical mask goes into the conference room. “I don’t want to wear this,” she said. “But I don’t want to get anyone sick.” She’d heard about the case on the news, but says she can put that aside and just consider the evidence. The judge asked her to come back Friday.

Another woman says she’s heard that Jonchuck is guilty. A couple of years ago, she said, she first heard about the case. “But I don’t like to read about things that happen to children.”

“This trial is about the death of a child,” said the judge. “Would you be able to set aside your emotions and concentrate on the evidence?”

“I don’t think so,” said the woman. “When something like that is on TV I have to go into the other room.”

The judge dismissed her.

Potential jurors wait to be called by Circuit Court Judge Chris Helinger in the John Jonchuck murder trial, Wednesday, March 20, 2019 during jury selection. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Potential jurors wait to be called by Circuit Court Judge Chris Helinger in the John Jonchuck murder trial, Wednesday, March 20, 2019 during jury selection. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
LANE (3:07 p.m.)

Jonchuck drops his chin between his fists and stares at the table. He looks tired now. His mouth hangs open, his eyes are heavy and he keeps blinking and slightly rocking in his seat.

The lawyers and judge debate which prospective jurors to cut, and who to keep. She lets 27 more people go. That means 39 will return for individual questioning after a 15-minute break.

JOSH (2:59 p.m.)

UPDATE: The power is back. Nobody clapped, which was disappointing.

LANE AND JOSH (2:49 p.m.)

This is breaking news. The power goes out in the courtroom. An alarm starts beeping. The judge keeps going. “Alright, fourth row.”

The Sheriff’s Office makes an announcement, telling us what we already know -- the lights are off. We’re waiting for firefighters.

The fallout: the prospective jurors who are excused have to take the stairs, as the elevator went out; those who are hard of hearing and wear headphones can’t hear; and worst of all, it’s beginning to get hot in here.

LANE (2:45 p.m.)

The draft, taxes and jury duty. That’s it, the judge says of the responsibilities of being a citizen. Is there anyone who is unable to serve in this case? Half the people raise their hands.

One woman sitting on the wooden pews says she has to get X-rays tomorrow for a herniated disc. “I’m a teacher, and I’ve been standing teaching for the last two weeks. I don’t know if I could sit that long.”

“If you’re chosen as a juror,” the judge says from her leather swivel chair, “the seats are better. You want to come up here and try it? And I’ll take breaks to accommodate you.”

A woman in a red sweater, who looks like she’s about to cry, says simply, “I don’t feel well.” The judge releases her. Another woman says she has a child at home and two dogs. “Two dogs?” asks the judge. “And how old is your son?” He’s 17. The judge thanks her, and tells her to sit down.

“I don’t want to be here,” says a woman in the first row.

“That’s not a reason,” says the judge.

A young woman with long black hair is going to school and can’t miss a month.

Another young woman, who is unemployed, says she can’t wait another month to get work. “I won’t be able to pay my bills,” she says, sniffling. “And I have really bad anxiety.” The judge calls her to the bench. She starts crying, so the judge lets her go.

A woman with grey hair is a health care provider, and takes care of someone who needs her. She can’t afford to be out of work that long, her employer won’t pay her. “I won’t be broke, but I’ll be struggling.”

A woman in teal scrubs says she’s a licensed aesthetician and is trying to build her business. She has to stay. For now.

“I’m a primary giver for a stroke patient,” says a woman in a purple blouse. “He’s home by himself right now. I spend three or four hours with him every day, sometimes nights. It varies.”

“I get paid by the hour,” says a man in a maroon polo. “So I wouldn’t get paid at all.”

A man in a plaid, button-up shirt says he’s a small businessman who is just getting everything up and rolling. “If I can get everybody up and rolling first, maybe I can make this work.”

“Thank you,” said the judge. “You’re a shining example for everybody else.”

Man in white shirt: I have to finish some competency tests, some EKG tests by the 31st … So I’m not sure I can be here. I have to take a competency test at Baycare. I’m a nurse.”

JOSH (2:20 p.m.)

It’s the sixth time the judge has given her speech to a fresh jury panel, and each time it varies in subtle ways. This time, as she was introducing the court reporter -- who writes the official trial transcript on a cool machine called a stenotype -- the judge referred to her as “the most important person in the room.”

She added: “It’s a dying profession."

(I know that feeling.)

LANE (1:50 p.m.)

The people remaining in the jury pool are back in court. The judge is back on her bench. Lawyers are at their long tables. Jonchuck yawns, then looks at the diagram of potential jurors and crosses off names as the judge excuses another group.

“Come back at 10:30 tomorrow,” the judge tells the remaining 27 people. “We’ll have a few more questions for you then.”

Jonchuck is wearing a green shirt today, and has had a different, pressed Oxford shirt and dress pants every day. His lawyer, Greg Williams, said people in the public defenders’ office bring in their old clothes and chip in money to buy new outfits. One judge, he said, donates a lot of his suits. “After the trial, we’ll dry clean everything and recycle them for other defendants,” Williams said.

Another group of 66 people is downstairs, waiting to be called.

JOSH (12:30 p.m.)

From the latest jury pool, 30 were excused for hardship, 27 were kept. They’ll be asked the questions about publicity and their thoughts on the insanity defense.

We are breaking for lunch. Court will be in recess until 1:15 p.m.

Thanks for sticking with us through jury selection. They currently have 42 prospective jurors shortlisted, with the goal 70. From there, lawyers and the judge will ask further questions, with the hope of narrowing that pool down to 12 jurors and several alternates.

The slow pace means opening statements will likely not come until next week.

That means there’s plenty of time to catch up on our coverage of the Jonchuck case.

Some key 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 (12:20 p.m.)

Of the 150 people who were called for this jury pool, 63 showed up. Of them, about three quarters had hardship concerns. Here’s a complete list of the excuses:

Man in green jacket: Takes care of his elderly mother, who lives in an independent living facility.

Woman in brown jacket: I have a one-car family, and a kid in third-grade. My husband works from home and I live 40 minutes from here. My son has to be at school at 8:20 in Seminole. Judge: Well you have plenty of time to drop him off and come here.

Man in striped shirt: Being out for a month, that’s going to put me behind on my bills. I can’t really afford to do that.

Man in white dress shirt: I just left my job and am starting a new company. My financial hardship would be a 10.

Woman in navy blouse: I’d lose my job, I’d lose my house. I’d have no way to support myself.

Man in gray blazer: I have three conferences already paid for by work.

Woman in grey blazer: I am self-employed, I do real estate. So 30 days off the grid is a lot of lost income for me.

Woman in black cardigan: I just can’t afford to be off.

Man in warm-up jacket: My mother and aunt are twins, they live together. They’re not disabled, but neither one of them drive. So we gotta get them to the doctor, to their appointments.

Woman in red t-shirt: If I’m selected for the jury, would I be able to access a computer on breaks and at lunch while I’m serving? Yes, said the judge. As long as you don’t look up anything about this case.

Man in navy polo: If I’m not moving around, I fall asleep. And I’m also the single father of a 12-year-old.

Man in glasses: I’m the only one working. I’ve got four kids to take care of. My wife doesn’t work. We’re living in a motel, basically homeless. On a scale of 1-10 financial hardship? I’d be a 13. I have to work.

Man in hoodie approaches the bench. He’s excused.

Man in green t-shirt: Two weeks ago I started an LLC. I’d be a 10 on the scale. (1 is rich, 10 is poor, per the judge’s scale)

Woman in black suit approaches the bench.

Man in brown hoodie has been waiting 18 months to get a service dog for veterans. He’s supposed to be paired the first week of April, then go through three months of training.

Man in blue jacket has a tripped planned on April 16 to New England, already paid for.

Woman in tan blouse approaches the bench. She’s excused.

Man in black hoodie: At my job, I’m the only one who does what I do, oversees access control systems for Home Shopping Network. If I’m out for a month, we’d get way behind.

Man in gray t-shirt owns a real estate company. He can’t be out for a month.

Woman in plaid blouse: My employer will only pay me for three days of jury service. Being out for a month would be a hardship, a 10.

Man in white dress shirt approaches the bench. He gets excused.

Woman with blonde hair: I teach students on the autism scale at Bardmoor Elementary, this is their testing month and I’m the only person who’s trained and able to test them.

Woman in white sweater: She does home closings. Earnest money would be lost, etc.

Woman in turquoise top approaches the bench.

Man in black polo: I got bolts, screws in my back. Sitting for eight hours a day, I don’t know how that would go. I take medication, narcotics, and sometimes get drowsy. I’m a technician at GE. If you let me stand up every so often I might be able to …

“You can stand as much as you want,” says the judge.

Woman with sunglasses on her head has a trip planned for April 15, for her brother’s birthday in California. She already has her plane tickets.

Man in khaki shirt approaches the bench, then gets excused.

Man in black jacket approaches the bench and gets excused.

Man in grey t-shirt takes care of his elderly mother, and has two engagements at the end of this month to house sit and watch their animals, and they’ve already made plans to go away and are counting on me.

Woman in black jacket approaches the bench, gets to go home.

“Okay, last call before lunch,” says the judge.

The blonde woman who teaches autistic children approaches the bench, and gets excused.

LANE (12:08 p.m.)

Another man approaches the bench and is excused. Then another. More and more people keep raising their hands, asking to talk to the judge, not wanting to discuss their hardships in front of the rest of the jury pool. Two more men, and a weeping woman, get to go home.

Jonchuck seems to be keeping track of each potential juror, writing notes beside their names on a seating chart. When his lawyers approach the bench, he doodles on a yellow legal pad, making lop-sided circles and filling them in.

Defendant John Jonchuck talks with his attorney Jessica Manuele, during the third day of jury selection. Johnchuck's legal pad features some doodles. It's the first time Jonchuck has been seen smiling during the trial. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Defendant John Jonchuck talks with his attorney Jessica Manuele, during the third day of jury selection. Johnchuck's legal pad features some doodles. It's the first time Jonchuck has been seen smiling during the trial. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
JOSH (11:40 a.m.)

The judge reads the indictment against Jonchuck to the fifth jury panel this week. For the first time, she tells the prospective jurors that this case is not a death penalty case.

“The state is not seeking the death penalty” so that is not something they have to worry about, she said.

Prosecutors did initially intend to seek the death penalty. But they dropped their bid last summer to have Jonchuck executed.

Qualifying a jury for the death penalty is another step in the process, and by the way things have gone, likely would have made picking a jury for this case impossible in Pinellas County. Already, most prospective jurors are being dismissed due to hardship or their prejudices about Jonchuck or the insanity defense. Finding jurors who are fit to serve and who would be willing to sentence a man to death -- but aren’t overzealous about it -- would have been extraordinarily difficult.

LANE (11:30 a.m.)

“Alright,” says a deputy, “it’s party time!”

The new jury pool files into the courtroom as a deputy calls each of their numbers. They’ve been waiting almost two hours, as the judge and lawyers had to dispense with jurors who came back from Monday. Some of these prospective jurors have shoulder backpacks and briefcases. Others cradle small coolers, presumably containing their lunch. Several carry paperbacks, jackets and headphones in their hands. They fill six rows of wooden pews and spill into the seventh.

“Good morning,” says the judge. “I’m sorry about the delay.”

A woman in a khaki jacket used to work with foster children. She knew Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe by name. A man in a plaid shirt also knew the State Attorney through work with endangered kids, but both said they could remain impartial.

When a man said he knew the judge’s ex-husband, she called him to the bench. He also said he knew one of the defense attorneys, Greg Williams. So the judge excused him. As he walked out, one of the prospective jurors started to clap.

LANE (11:11 a.m.)

We’re back from recess. The judge has now vetted 42 prospective jurors for the shortlist, who she will bring back for another round of questioning later in the week.

Just after 11 a.m., she calls up a new pool of 54 prospective jurors. One doesn’t speak English, and brought an interpreter. He gets excused before even coming into the courtroom.

Jail logs show that Jonchuck took his medications and ate his breakfast. He comes into court in a moss green dress shirt and shiny plaid tie. He confers with his defense lawyer, smiling. He looks happy today, for the first time.

JOSH (10:43 a.m.)

We’re in a 10 minute recess. The lawyers and judge seem to have found a rhythm. We’ll update soon with how many new jurors made the shortlist. The goal remains 70.

JOSH (10:40 a.m.)

The judge is asking to every prospective juror in private if they understand the concept of not guilty by reason of insanity. The defense plans to argue Jonchuck was insane when he let Phoebe go -- that he didn’t know what he was doing, or didn’t know it was wrong. We wrote a primer last week on the insanity defense. It’s far less common than people think, and it’s extremely difficult to prove.

Click here to read our story on the insanity defense.

LANE (10:30 a.m.)

A prospective juror said she had been exposed to pretrial publicity. Helinger asked what she knew and where she learned it.

“I’m kind of a news junkie, Tampa Bay Times and NPR,” she said. “I was aware of the insanity plea and recognized the defendant when I came into court.”

She said when the incident happened, she saw a lot of news back, and then there were headlines this past weekend.

“I was aware he dropped his daughter off the bridge,” she said. “I don’t know a whole lot of specifics. But I was certainly aware of the basics of the case. At the time I was horrified by what happened, I had trouble comprehending that. I’ve been going back and forth on how I feel.”

She was ultimately excused.

That’s becoming a common theme. Several of the people who have come in with lots of knowledge of the case have been excused this morning.

LANE (10:00 a.m.)

The sixth person, a man, said he had read something about the case. But his bigger concern was his daughter, who is two and a half.

“I’m trying to set that emotional part aside,” he said. “I had an emotional moment that first morning when I knew I was coming here, when I was with my daughter, but since then I consider myself to be pretty even-keeled.”

“So you’re back and forth?” asked the judge. “I’m going to excuse you.”

JOSH (9:40 a.m.)

We’ve been at it less than an hour and already Helinger is getting impatient with Assistant Public Defender Jane McNeill, who has been asking the most questions during the individual voir dire.

Helinger told McNeill to use her judgment.

“Some people obviously get it” and don’t need McNeill to reiterate her questions several times, Helinger said. “This woman was rolling her eyes, she obviously got it.”

“I would ask you to use that great brain of yours,” Helinger went on.

McNeill said back, “I didn’t have that impression of her, and my last question was a different question.”

LANE (9:30 a.m.)

The first man questioned said, “There must be something wrong … for something like that to happen, there must be some insanity there. I just find it so insane that someone could do that.”

“Sanity and something wrong are two different things,” said the judge. She excused him.

The next prospective juror, a woman, also was dismissed after saying, “ I don’t see how there could be an excuse for it if it’s a family member.”

Then a woman who had spent 30 years working with disabled children was called. She said she could consider an insanity defense, “but it’s maybe a get out of jail free card?

“Is that going to be something you think about during this trial?” asked the defense attorney.

“I’m not sure,” the woman said. “I probably have more sympathy for crimes involving kids.”

“The law on insanity, it makes no difference who the victim is,” said the judge. “Could you fulfill that cold role where you don’t even consider who the victim is?’

The woman hesitated, then answered, “I could try.”

She also was dismissed.

JOSH (9:10 a.m.)

Good morning! The day starts with the court very behind schedule.

Individual jury questioning began again this morning, with 18 leftover prospective jurors from the block of more than 60 that was brought in Monday afternoon. This is their third day in the courthouse. They missed three days of work, had to find childcare or someone to watch their elderly mom for yet another day. At least they seem to be getting used to the slow pace; many brought books this time.

Once Pinellas-Pasco Judge Chris Helinger and the prosecutors and defense attorneys determine whether these jurors will be dismissed or asked back, the group with address the 28 prospective jurors left over from Tuesday afternoon’s jury panel.

That’s before they even get to the fresh jury panel brought in for this morning’s morning session.

We’ll keep you updated.


The goal remains 70.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger hopes to put at least that many prospective jurors on the shortlist before winnowing that down to 12 jurors and several alternates.

But after two days, there are only 35. The slow pace means jury selection will bleed into Friday, and likely into next week, delaying a trial that is already expected to take up to a month.

Stay tuned for updates today as the court works toward a jury.

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