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The trial of John Jonchuck, Day 4: The road to 70

The judge hopes to have 70 prospective jurors on the shortlist for more questioning. Lawyers will spend Friday narrowing that down to 12 jurors and several alternates.
LANE AND JOSH (3:31 p.m.)

This is the final update of the afternoon. An early dismissal!

After a fair bit of confusion, we’ve got it sorted out. The lawyers will work to pick a jury - 12 plus likely four alternates - from their shortlist of 67 prospective jurors. The fresh panel from this afternoon is an emergency panel, on call for Monday afternoon, in the event they cannot fill out the jury. If they can seat the entire jury tomorrow, none of the new people have to come back next week. It’s that’s the case, opening statements will start Monday.

If they must continue picking a jury Monday, opening statements could happen Tuesday, or Wednesday, or...

Follow along tomorrow as we cover the next -- and hopefully last -- phase of jury selection.

LANE AND JOSH (2:59 p.m.)

Well, we got to 67 prospective jurors on the shortlist, and then we ran out of prospective jurors. The judge had wanted 70. She called in a new panel of jurors and told them all to be ready to reappear Monday afternoon. They’ll call Monday morning and see if they are needed. It’s a little unclear exactly what the plan is.

Most of the panel was dismissed for now, except for about a dozen people who had concerns about appearing Monday.

“I work in the jail,” one man says. He has to come back.

The next man has to be in Tallahassee for work on Monday. “We have two bills up to be heard, and a meeting with the governor scheduled.” He’s excused.

The judge calls each remaining prospective juror to the bench, for private conversations. A window contractor gets let go, so does a military contractor, a doctor who has to do surgery, a woman in a leopard print sweater and another in a green blouse, with a cane.

JOSH (1:55 p.m.)

Daily Jonchuck activity update from the jail: Yesterday Jonchuck received two meals and his medication (he also probably got lunch, but that would have been at the courthouse, not in the jail). He also shaved under the supervision of jail personnel.

JOSH (1:07 p.m.)

Mercifully, we’re at 65 people. Short break for lunch, and then they’ll continue questioning jurors. Hopefully they can get the remaining five people without calling in a fresh jury pool.

Once we hit 70, everything shuts down for the day, and they’ll resume tomorrow morning narrowing that group down to the final jurors. For us, that could mean an early dismissal this afternoon!

LANE (12:44 p.m.)

Two more prospective jurors were excused. By our count, we’re up to 63. Here’s some dialogue from those two excused jurors.

“I just remember hearing it on the news,” says the next woman. “A car, he was there, he wasn’t. I just remember being really enraged that this would happen, being really upset about it. I remember my first reaction in the courtroom when I was trying to be neutral was anger that the option of the death penalty was removed.” She’s excused.

“Social services knew about the baby,” the next man says. “Honestly, I’d like to say I can set that aside, but I’m not so sure I could. I don’t even know what the definition of insanity is.”

“The definition is right in front of you. Do you want to read it?” asked the judge.

“I’m afraid to,” the man said.

The judge replied, “It’s good to face your fears.” Then she excused him.

LANE (12:33 p.m.)

Three more were excused: “I just remember hearing it on the news,” says the next woman. “A car, he was there, he wasn’t. I just remember being really enraged that this would happen, being really upset about it. I remember my first reaction in the courtroom when I was trying to be neutral was anger that the option of the death penalty was removed.” She’s excused.


“Social services knew about the baby,” the next man says. “Honestly, I’d like to say I can set that aside, but I’m not so sure I could. I don’t even know what the definition of insanity is.”

“The definition is right in front of you. Do you want to read it?” asked the judge.

“I’m afraid to,” the man said.

The judge replied, “It’s good to face your fears.” Then she excused him.


“I’m an open-minded person. I’d have to hear all the evidence,” the next woman says. “I think, John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity wasn’t he? And he was released?” she asks, referring to the man who shot President Ronald Reagan. “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.” She’s excused.

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The case swept in reform that made it harder to win a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict.


JOSH (11:43 a.m.)

This time, while reading the jury instructions to the prospective jurors, Helinger makes clear the law does not change if the victim is a child rather than an adult. This issue has come up in questioning, and several jurors have been excused after saying the fact that the victim in this case was a child would influence their decision-making.

JOSH (11:35 a.m.)

The judge asked five people to return tomorrow for more questioning from the last group of 27. That brings our total up to 59.

Another round of prospective jurors is being brought in, 26 of them. Like the last group, these are ones from earlier in the week who were not excused due to hardship. Today they’ll go through the first round of questioning.

If the judge cannot get to 70 with this group, she will call in another panel of fresh jurors. That would mean more hardship excuses.

Defendant John Jonchuck is escorted into the courtroom by bailiffs during the fourth day of jury selection. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
JOSH (11:13 a.m.)

Our latest story from the courthouse, where Dan writes about Jonchuck’s diagnoses and medication.


DAN (11:08 a.m.)

We’re on a bit of a roll here. The judge has asked several in a row to return tomorrow morning to further questioning. Here’s one of the latest jurors that was called back:

Says the next guy: “I travel a lot, so I had no idea. … I haven’t seen a newspaper. I know nothing about this case.”

The judge asks if he would be able to consider insanity as a possible defense.

Yes, he says, “if the facts are there.”

“It sounds like you would consider this as a defense,” the defense says.

“That’s correct,” he says.”I’m very respectful of professional opinions … I need to make sure the facts are right there.

“I had no opinion about this case. I don’t know anything.”

The judge asks him to come back tomorrow.

LANE (10:50 a.m.)

When asked about the insanity defense, the next man says, “I see that as a viable option for the defense. I don’t have any specific background in this particular case or these sets of circumstances. Having a father who had mental illness himself, I know he was never involved in a criminal matter.” Yet he says he could find a mentally ill person not guilty by reason of insanity, even if the victim was a child. “My father was diagnosed with manic-depression in 2010.”

“I’m reading your facial expressions a bit,” says the judge. “Does that make a difference?”

He says no. But he’s worried about having worked in a prosecuting attorney’s office in Michigan that might bias him. “That’s what you saw in my face,” he says. “I think there would be an appearance of impropriety if I sat on the jury.”

He’s excused.

“Time is not our friend,” says the judge. She had budgeted four minutes to talk to each prospective juror. Some are taking eight minutes or more.

LANE AND DAN (10:30 a.m.)

A man saw a TV news clip saying the court is struggling to find jurors, but other than that hasn’t heard about the case. He thinks he can consider an insanity defense. “But I think it would depend on all the information. I feel like it’s difficult to say.” Would it make a difference if the victim was a child? asks the defense. He hesitates, then says, “I’m really not sure.” But he says he would try to follow the law. The judge asks him to step into the hall for a minute.

The attorneys start arguing about a question the defense has repeatedly asked: Does it make a difference to you that the victim was a child?

The prosecutors say there is no distinction in the law.

The judge says the way the defense asks might suggest that there is a difference. She suggests that they preface the question with the statement that the law does not distinguish between a child and adult victim.

“I would not like to do that,” the defense lawyer says.

“I would like you to do that,” says the judge. “And we’ll see how it goes.”

The defense lawyers ask for a moment to speak privately with Jonchuck.

Then the judge dismisses the man.

Juror 299 on panel 6 called jury services and said after looking at some things, financially and otherwise, he’s unable to return tomorrow. “We need to call him and let him know he needs to return,” says the judge. “No one just decides, ‘I’m not coming back.’ He has a legal summons for jury duty.”

One prospective juror who is waiting is the best man in a wedding tomorrow. “He can skip the rehearsal,” says the judge. “Let’s bring him in.”

He tells the judge his parents have been following the case, and talked to him about it. “They had some very strong opinions. They just didn’t understand how someone could do that, having three kids. I have a daughter as well and I just, I can’t imagine doing something like that, no matter the circumstances.” The judge excuses him, “Have a good time at the wedding.”

John Jonchuck and Assistant Public Defender Greg Williams look over a seating chart with names of prospective jurors on the fourth day of jury selection. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
LANE AND JOSH (10:03 a.m.)

After an hour, only one person has been added to the pool to come back on Friday. The prosecution questions the judge’s strategy of dismissing any juror who says they believe Jonchuck did it. The issue, says prosecutor Doug Ellis, isn’t whether he did it, it’s whether there’s an excuse.

“I don’t know what I do with someone who says he has an opinion and says they know he’s guilty,” the judge tells the lawyers. “They’re not conceding that. Are you conceding that?"

The judge addresses the defense, who says no. At issue here is that even though the defense plans to argue Jonchuck was insane, it’s still up to the prosecution to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a crime was committed. So, is it acceptable to have a juror who has already made up their mind about guilt?

“So if they say he’s guilty," the judge asked, "what are we supposed to do?”

LANE, DAN AND JOSH (9:50 a.m.)

The judge is flying through prospective jurors at a pace unseen this week. Most are being excused after just a few questions.

One man can’t afford to be away from work. He’s excused. Then a man says he couldn’t consider an insanity defense. He’s gone too.

“I think he’s guilty,” the next man says right away. He says he’s not likely to change his opinion. The judge dismisses him too.

“I can’t say he’s not guilty,” says the next woman. Another strike.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger reads the insanity jury instructions to perspective jurors during the fourth day of jury selection Thursday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
JOSH (9:40 a.m.)

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger is talking with prosecutors and defense lawyers about opening statements.

“If we get a juror,” she said, opening statements would likely begin Monday afternoon,

The defense estimates their opener would take 45 minutes, prosecution says 30 minutes.

DAN AND JOSH (9:30 a.m.)

Five prospective jurors down, four dismissals. Some highlights, and a bona fide master class on how to get out of jury duty.

Male juror: “I’m a code compliance officer with the city of St. Petersburg. … I have discussed this case with people at work last week. To be honest with you, my opinions have not changed. … I would like to be excused from this case. I don’t think I can give you what you’re looking for.”

The judge asks what he thinks she’s looking for.

“I believe anything short of a death sentence is an injustice,” he says.

He is excused.

The next man says, “My wife told me about this case. She doesn’t like what happened at all.”

“I don’t think anybody does,” said the judge.

“I know he threw his 5-year-old daughter off the bridge.”

“Would you be able to set aside what your wife told you and only listen to the evidence in court?” asked the judge.

“Oh she’s going to nag me, I know.”

“Well if you’re chosen as a juror your wife shouldn’t be nagging you. Do you really listen to everything your wife says? 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?”


“Okay, I’m going to excuse you.”

LANE (9:20 a.m.)

Before the next round of prospective jurors enters the courtroom, Jonchuck walks in slowly and takes his seat by his lawyer. He’s wearing a lavender dress shirt and red print tie. “Good morning, Mr. Jonchuck,” says the judge.

Jonchuck swivels to face her and says, “Good morning, your honor.”

The 28 people in this jury pool spread out across five rows of wooden pews. The judge thanks them for coming, and explains they each will be taken into a conference room to talk about pre-trial publicity and the not guilty by reason of insanity defense, which says, in part:

“At issue in this case is whether the defendant was insane at the time this crime was committed. … Either he didn’t know what he was doing, or its consequences, or he did know what he was doing but didn’t know it was wrong.”

JOSH (9:15 a.m.)

Good morning! We pick up right where we left off yesterday, with individual questioning of prospective jurors. We’re at 54, hoping to get to 70.

There are also whispers that today could be an early day. If we hit 70, I believe we shut down for the day, as the next step in the process is scheduled to begin tomorrow morning.

Remember that you can leave questions in the comments and we’ll do our best to answer.


The judge and lawyers spent a third day Wednesday trying to find at least 70 jurors who are both open-minded about the insanity defense and impartial about the case, despite any news coverage they’ve seen.

They have 54 so far, and will have two more panels of jurors in for individual questioning tomorrow -- both panels are leftovers from earlier in the week.

It’s from that pool that lawyers will select the final jury, likely on Friday.

Jonchuck was smiling in court in the morning, the first time we’ve seen him happy since the trial began Monday. As the day wore on, he seemed to get tired - his mouth hung open and he wore a blank stare, often appearing to stare into space.

Follow the live blog for updates as the day gets underway.

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