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

The court moves to the second phase of jury selection day. The judge and lawyers hope to seat a jury by narrowing down the remaining pool of 67.
JOSH (6:57 p.m.)

That closes out day 5 of the Jonchuck trial. The case resumes Monday at 1 p.m. with opening statements.

LANE (6:55 p.m.)

The prospective jurors are coming back to the courtroom. Jonchuck is smiling, talking to his defense lawyers. Both sides seem relieved that they might finally have a pool.

“If I call your name, please go sit in the jury box … “

Seven women and nine men take the comfy leather seats.

“I want to give you my sincere appreciation,” said the judge. “You’ve been here between two and four days. We’re very grateful you all showed up. Some of the questions, I’m sure, were troublesome and soul searching and brought up bad memories. We appreciate it.”

JOSH (6:45 p.m.)

UPDATE: They have picked a jury. The judge is about to inform the panel who has been selected, and who is excused.

JOSH (5:56 p.m.)

The defense has finished asking questions of the prospective jurors. With that, the voir dire is over. The judge asked the jury panel to step outside and return at 6:20. By then, she said, she hopes the lawyers will have a jury panel picked.

With the jury panel out of the courtroom, the defense and prosecution are calling out which prospective jurors they wish to strike.

DAN (5:15 p.m.)

McNeill now asks about drug use.

“If you hear evidence that in the past there has been drug use,” she says, “Is that going to affect your judgement regarding insanity at the time of the offense in this case?

No, the panel says.

“It really depends on the drug that was taken,” one woman says. “Because drugs have caused mental illness, as we heard about in the 60’s and 70’s. … I ‘d want to know what drugs, what happened after they took those drugs. … I’d want to know a lot of things.”

McNeill: If you don’t get all your questions answered, would you still be able to still consider the issue of insanity at the time of the offense?

“Yes,” she says.

DAN (4:53 p.m.)

McNeill is asking the jurors about how they would evaluate the testimony of experts. One man says he would believe them, in general, unless one was “way out in left field.”

A woman says she would want to know their credentials, and whether their research has been peer reviewed.

McNeill asks another man about the idea of one expert being an outlier.

“I think you want to look at continuity between the experts,” he says. “Usually the truth is within multiple sources.”

DAN (4:20 p.m.)

McNeill addresses pretrial publicity. She asks: “Do you think everything you read in the newspaper or see online or on TV is true?”

Everyone says “no.” A few people laugh.

LANE (4:07 p.m.)

Defense attorney Jane McNeill asks potential jurors what they think about premeditated murder, and the concept of intention. Some seem confused, raising their hands to ask follow-up questions. Others nod as if they understand.

“If you’re chosen as a juror, and you’re deliberating, a body of 12 of you will be in there but you’re all individuals. You all bring your own personal backgrounds and life experiences to the jury,” the defense tells the prospective jurors. “Has there ever been a time in your life when you’ve made a decision about something and you’re not really sure why, you just know it? Are you willing to bring your own assessment of the case to the jury room?”

“I’d be required to,” says a man with a grey ponytail.

“Thank you,” says McNeill. “You would.”

Left to Right: Defense attorneys Greg Williams, Jessica Manuele and Jane McNeill confer during jury selection in the John Jonchuck murder trial on Friday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
LANE AND JOSH (3:50 p.m.)

“This is about you and making sure we’re getting the information we need from you so we can make informed decisions about this jury,” McNeil says. “Please don’t hold it against Mr. Jonchuck if you see a moment of levity. It doesn’t mean that we’re not taking things seriously. It must means we might need to take a breath for a moment.”

“I know of course you’re looking at Mr. Jonchuck. I’d ask that you keep that in mind, about his medications.”

“This is kind of a different case. We’re asserting that Mr. Jonchuck was insane at the time of the offense,” his lawyer says. “Mr. Jonchuck is presumed innocent. We have not heard any evidence in this case. Now what we need to do is back up a little bit and talk about pre-meditated, first-degree murder. You’re not going to hear us dispute that Mr. Jonchuck is the person who did the act that killed the victim. The issue is his mental state. That’s not just about insanity. It’s also about the mental state, that pre-meditation that he thought about it, planned it, acted on it. The state has to prove to you that Mr. Jonchuck had the mental state for first-degree murder.”

Ellis stops her, and they all go to the bench.

When she returns, McNeill backtracks. She said the defense is not going to contest that Jonchuck was the person who committed the offense. Yet, there is more to first-degree murder. The state must prove the intent.

“So what happens if the government doesn’t prove to you the elements of first-degree murder?" McNeill asks.

“Ummm, I’d follow my common sense and acquit?” asks a man with a bushy black beard.

DAN (3:42 p.m.)

The state is done questioning jurors. We’re down to 46.

Jane McNeill begins questioning for the defense.

“This is such an important day for so many people,” she says. “I can’t imagine a more important day in the life of Mr. Jonchuck. … I’ll be as quick as I can, but there are some things we need to talk about because it’s his trial for first-degree murder.”

JOSH (3:39 p.m.)

We’re down into the 40s now - by our count, 46 prospective jurors left - as people keep getting struck for cause. That means the buffer is down to 10. That’s because the judge hopes to get a jury of 12 plus four alternates. And each side gets 10 peremptory strikes.

If they cannot seat a jury with this pool this afternoon, the judge will call in another jury panel Monday afternoon.

DAN (2:58 p.m.)

The judge is now questioning people about whether anyone has concerns about their availability during the trial. One woman says “On May 13, I’m in a wedding-”

The judge cuts her off, saying hopefully the trial will be done by then.

“Don’t even go there,” the judge says.

There are more bench conferences, then the judge excuses three more people.

We’re down to 48 jurors.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger gives potential jury members instructions to follow during the John Jonchuck murder trial on Friday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
DAN (2:49 p.m.)

Ellis asks if anyone has any other reason they might not be able to serve on the jury. One woman asks to approach the bench. After a short conversation, the judge excuses her.

Another woman rises and says she is enrolled in an educational program that requires observations in schools during the day. The judge asks her to approach the bench. She, too, is excused.

Those are our first dismissals since before lunch. We’re down to 51.

DAN AND LANE (2:37 p.m.)

And almost everyone had taken some sort of basic class in psychology or psychiatry.

Ellis asks: Does anyone have feelings about the practice of psychology and psychiatry that would affect your ability to evaluate the testimony of experts?

All say “no.”

Has anyone here ever participated in a mental health movement?

Most also say “no.”

One man wants to know what that means. Ellis explains it’s like anti-drunk driving campaigns.

Ellis then asks about expert witnesses. He explains that it’s not a numbers battle. The state could put on 10 experts and the defense could put on none, and the jury could still believe the defense.

“Has anyone here ever not gotten a traffic ticket?”

Everyone laughs.

Ellis asks if anyone would be less likely to believe an officer because of a bad experience getting a ticket. “No,” they say.

“Anyone here not like lawyers?”

More laughter.

“Your feelings about us should make no difference in your decision. Do you agree with that?”

All say “yes.”

JOSH (2:27 p.m.)

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LANE (2:19 p.m.)

Next question: “Do any of you know anyone who is a psychiatrist or psychologist?” asks Ellis. Several people raise their hands. So he asks me about those relationships, and the doctors’ work.

Some know psychiatrists and psychologists. Some are being treated by them. Several have relatives who work in the field, in jails, schools and with foster children. All the potential jurors say they could be fair and impartial, despite those connections.

LANE (2:10 p.m.)

A man’s niece was murdered at Louisiana State University. Another’s niece was attacked by her boyfriend, who is now in prison. A red-headed man said his uncles are always getting into bar fights. A woman said her ex-husband was charged with manslaughter. Another woman teaches sexual healing classes at a Hernando County prison. A former police officer said a baby died in her arms after a drunk driving accident, and she had to respond to a suicide call.

Then Ellis asks if anyone has a family member accused of a crime. One woman’s son served time for armed robbery. One’s brother was accused of domestic assault, but the charges were dropped. A man’s brother was arrested for aggravated battery, and served four years in prison. One woman’s uncle drunk drove through a Dairy Queen. Another woman’s uncle was accused of murdering his wife, who was ill. He was the caregiver. He’s still in jail 20 years later. One woman’s cousin went to jail for getting a minor pregnant: He was 19, she was 17. Now they’re married.

“Anything about that experience that would make it difficult for you to be fair and impartial?” The prosecutor asks each person. They all say no.

LANE AND DAN (1:53 p.m.)

During the state attorney’s questioning, several prospective jurors say they served on juries before. Others are familiar with the Dick Misener Bridge. “I drive over it every other day,” one man says.

Ellis explains the definition of first-degree murder, and pre-meditation. “It means you consciously decided to commit murder,” says the prosecutor. “As the judge told you, the state is not seeking the death penalty in this case. As you have heard, this case involves the murder of a 5-year-old child. But the law is the same, regardless of who the defendant is. You may hear about drug usage in this case, legal and illegal. Is there anyone that would be difficult for?”

In unison, the jurors say, “No.”

The state attorney then asks if anyone has ever been the victim of a crime. A dozen people raise their hands. One man took a bad check. A woman’s home was robbed. Several people had their cars broken into. And a woman was the victim of domestic abuse, but the charges were dropped.

DAN (1:35 p.m.)

We’re back from lunch. The judge tells jurors that the attorneys are under strict instructions not to talk to the jurors. She says if they say “hello,” the lawyers won’t respond, but not because they’re being rude.

The questioning continues. Ellis asks if anyone else has previously served on a jury. Several people on this panel have. One man in the front row says he was the foreperson on a drug case. He says he can be impartial if asked to serve again. Other people have been on juries in DUI cases, sex crime cases, and civil cases.

JOSH (1:20 p.m.)

An update on the juror who was arrested in court. The 50-year-old had a warrant out of Sarasota issued December 1994 (if you can believe it). The charge is failure to appear in court after failing to pay court costs, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

JOSH (12:28 p.m.)

Lunch break. Be back at 1:30 p.m.

That’s plenty of time to read The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck. Lane spent a year profiling Jonchuck and Phoebe, exploring the events that led the father and daughter to the bridge on Jan. 8, 2015.

We are down to 53 jurors, according to a bailiff. The judge is going for 16 jurors - 12 plus four alternates. Each side gets 10 peremptory strikes they can use to excuse jurors, no questions asked. That means our buffer is down to 17 prospective jurors.

“I guess we just plow on,” the judge said.

JOSH (12:22 p.m.)

Prosecutor Doug Ellis continues questioning, row by row now. He asked if anyone has previously been a juror. If so, what kind - civil or criminal. What kind of case? Were you the foreperson? Did you reach a verdict? Anything about that experience that would keep you from being fair and impartial in this case?

One man, from New York, said he served on both a criminal and civil case in Brooklyn. On one he was an alternate. On the other, the parties settled out of court. He said he can be fair and impartial.

Quick Doug Ellis fact: He wanted to be an archaeologist studying ancient civilizations. Unfortunately, he found out there was less field work than he hoped. So he became a lawyer. Trials are the field work.

To learn a bit more all the other players involved, visit our Jonchuck landing page, which has photographs and quick bios of the judge, lawyers and those who are expected to be key witnesses.

Assistant State Attorney Doug Ellis questions potential jurors Friday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
LANE (12:19 a.m.)

They’re supposed to be standing up, one by one, stating their names, occupations, the city they live in and whether they have kids. But after every few people, someone asks to approach the bench and share their private concerns. The judge lets each one come up front, and calls the lawyers to listen. Soon, another five people leave the jury pool.

So far today, we’ve lost 12 and are down to 55.

A Domino’s driver. A sales rep. More teachers, nurses and software developers. Most have kids. Some have grandkids. A few are widowed. One is engaged. One is expecting his first child in October.

“We’ll be done by then,” the prosecutor said. “Maybe.”

DAN (12:04 a.m.)

The Sheriff’s Office released Jonchuck’s daily jail activity log. Nothing unusual. It notes that he received dinner shortly after court finished yesterday. He got his medication at about 11:42 p.m. He received breakfast today at about 5:45 a.m., then another dose of meds about two hours later.

DAN (11:54 a.m.)

After a short bathroom break for the jurors, we’re back. After the jurors take their seats, a man in the front row who said he is a lawyer says he thought of some cases he worked on previously that might be relevant. The judge calls him up for a bench conference. The lawyer was excused. That brings us to 59 people.

DAN (11:42 a.m.)

Quite a strange thing happened during questioning. Turns out, the prosecutors had discovered that one of the prospective jurors had an active arrest warrant in Sarasota County. They informed the judge, who told the bailiffs, who called down to Sarasota to see if the folks down there wanted him arrested. They said they did, so the bailiffs quietly removed him from the courtroom and took him into custody. The questions continued without disruption.

That’s one way to get out of jury duty.

Now we’re at 60.

Circuit Court Judge Chris Helinger holds a bench conference with the attorneys in the Jonchuck murder trial on Friday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
JOSH (11:23 a.m.)

We’re about half way through the prosecution’s voir dire of the prospective jurors, which makes it a great time to catch up on some of our previous coverage of the case.

Our Day 4 blog

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

JOSH (11:17 a.m.)

We’re learning about people as the prosecutor asks them questions. Teachers, two lawyers, moms, dads. Most have kids. Some are retired. One was an Army medic, one spins cotton candy at fairs across the country. The prosecutor asks follow-ups occasionally. Like to a man who said his wife used to be a judicial assistant, or to a woman who said her husband is a nurse. Would any of that keep you from being impartial? Everyone thus far has said no.

LANE: (11:08 a.m.)

Prosecutor Doug Ellis approaches the podium, to begin his round of voir dire. Loosely translated, he said, it means, tell the truth. “This is your only chance to talk to us,” he said.

He asks each person to state their name, occupation, their spouse’s occupation the city you live in, the number of children you have and their ages.

Man with big beard supervises construction projects. I have two daughters, 13 and 11 and a boy who is 8. Married. His wife manages a health food store.

Woman with blonde ponytail works in event planning.

Man in green shirt builds swimming pools. No kids, no spouse.

Woman in grey tank top works for Medicaid taking care of disabled adults. Down syndrome, cerebral palsy. My spouse works for a cemetery and buries people. I have three children and two-step children, ages 2, 3, 5, 9 and 12.

LANE (10:55 a.m.)

While the judge is talking, Jonchuck drops his head into his hands and bends over the table.

Then a man in a blue shirt says he’s a cable engineer, on cable TV and his phone all the time. It would be hard for him to ignore all the news. “Why don’t you come up here?” the judge says. She excuses him. We’re down to 61.

“Has anyone been exposed to any pre-trial publicity that we need to discuss?” asks the judge. A man in a flowered shirt with a long ponytail approaches the bench. Then goes back to his seat.

A woman with long, brown hair approaches next. She also sits back down. Then a woman in a purple blazer goes to talk to the judge. She sits down too.

Before the judge hands the questioning over to the lawyers, she alerts the jurors of one more thing.

“Your summons are sealed,” she said. “So are your questionnaires. No one will be able to get those until two weeks after the trial. I just want you to know that.”

Defendant John Jonchuck covers his eyes with his hands for several minutes during jury selection Friday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
LANE (10:48 a.m.)

After a bench conference with the attorneys, the judge reiterates to the jury panel the importance of staying away from news coverage.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we need to have a discussion about the pre-trial publicity in this case,” says the judge. “There’s going to be a lot of coverage on this case, probably more than on any other trial I’ve been on. You can’t look at any of that stuff. You can’t watch it. You can’t go home and listen to the opinions of the people in your house about this case."

“It’s very, very important,” she says, because there’s no way to tell how what jurors learn outside the courtroom can contaminate them.

"However, if you’re inadvertently exposed to something you’re not supposed to be exposed to, tell us and we’ll deal with it. No one’s going to get in trouble. But we’ll need to deal with it. Because that could easily happen.”

JOSH (10:44 a.m.)

The judge reads the jurors some instructions that are mandated by the Florida Supreme Court.

“In order to have a fair and lawful trial, there are rules that all jurors must follow," the judge says.

Rely only on the evidence in the courtroom. Do not communicate with others outside the courtroom about the case. Cell phones must be completely off while in courtroom. Jurors cannot do any research about the case, meaning no consumption of media - television, newspapers, radio, etc.

“All of us are depending upon you to follow the rules, so there will be a fair and lawful” resolution to this case, she said.

JOSH (10:31 a.m.)

The judge is explaining the presumption of innocence. “That way you keep an open mind,” she said.

“Is everybody capable of presuming he’s innocent?” She encourages anyone who couldn’t to raise their hand. Nobody does.

Then she explains the burden is on the prosecution to prove the guilt of Jonchuck beyond a reasonable a doubt.

“However, in this case, sanity, will become an issue. The burden for insanity is on the defense, by clear and convincing evidence.”

“So it’s somewhat more complicated than a normal trial,” the judge says. She asks if anyone doesn’t understand. Nobody raises their hand.

The judge also explains that every defendant has a decision to testify. The lawyers make almost all the other decisions, but Jonchuck can make up his own mind on that. If he testifies, he starts off as credible as every other witness. And if he chooses not to testify, jurors cannot use that decision against him when considering guilt.

Jonchuck yawned as she said this.

LANE (10:24 a.m.)

Then the defense gets to read its list of witnesses, which seems to contain mostly doctors and a Catholic priest who Jonchuck visited on the day before he killed his daughter. He had taken Phoebe with him to the church, and begged Father William Swengros of St. Paul Catholic Church in Tampa for an exorcism. The priest had turned him away.

One man knows the priest, so he got let go. Now there are 63.

LANE (10:11 a.m.)

“I could call out these juror numbers in my sleep,” says a deputy, opening the door to Courtroom 1. “Come on in and have a seat on these real comfy wooden pews.”

The jurors file in and fill all seven rows. The clerk swears them in.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We’re ready to start the final process of jury selection,” says the judge. “We’re an hour late because two of the prospective jurors didn’t come and we wanted to give them a grace period to show. But that grace period is over. It’s time to begin.”

The prosecutor reads the witness list to see if any prospective jurors know someone who might testify during the trial. As he calls the names of Jonchuck’s parents, Jonchuck leans toward his lawyer and whispers something, his eyes wide.

One woman knows one of the law enforcement officers. So the judge calls her to the bench, the dismisses her. Now there are 64 left in the pool.

The prosecutor continues reading the list.

JOSH (9:53 a.m.)

The defense asked the judge to read to the prospective jurors the jury instruction 3.6(c), which notifies jurors that the defendant is on psychotropic drugs, and asks them to disregard any abnormal behaviors. Here is 3.6(c) below:

(Defendant) currently is being administered psychotropic medication under medical supervision for a mental or emotional condition.

Psychotropic medication is any drug or compound affecting the mind, behavior, intellectual functions, perception, moods, or emotion and includes anti-psychotic, anti-depressant, anti-manic, and anti-anxiety drugs.

You shall not allow the defendant’s present condition in court or any apparent side effect from the medication that you may have observed in court to affect your deliberations.

LANE (9:49 a.m.)

If someone doesn’t show for jury duty, the judge can summons them back to court and hold them in contempt. She can fine them up to $100 or send them to jail.

JOSH (9:35 a.m.)

We’re already off to a rocky start. Sixty-seven is now down to 65, as two prospective jurors are absent. Sounds like the judge is inclined to get started without them. And a handful or jurors are marked incorrectly on the seating chart. Lawyers are going over the charts now. The jurors will be brought in soon.

DAN (9:05 a.m.)

Good morning! We’re here for Day 5 of the John Jonchuck trial. Jury selection continues this morning. To recap: the judge and attorneys spent all week questioning hundreds of prospective jurors. They asked about personal hardships - if they could devote a month of their time to hearing the case. They also asked about the extent to which the jurors had been exposed to news reports on this very high-profile case; whether folks would be able to consider the defense of insanity; and if the fact that the victim was a child would make that difficult. After questioning several panels, they narrowed the pool yesterday to 67 potential jurors. The original aim was 70. Today, the lawyers will continue questioning those people, with the goal of assembling a panel of 12 plus a few alternates. If they can’t seat 12 by today, they’ll call in more people on Monday afternoon.


After four days of questioning hundreds of prospective jurors, we could finally have a jury seated today in John Jonchuck’s murder case.

Jonchuck is on trial in the 2015 death of his daughter, Phoebe. His lawyers argue he was insane.

The judge and lawyers have put 67 prospective jurors on the shortlist. They’ll work today to narrow that down to a jury of 12, plus several alternates. If they can, opening statements will begin Monday afternoon. If they cannot, another panel of about 50 fresh prospective jurors is on standby for Monday, and they’ll continue the process.

The next phase will be the real test. Each side gets 10 peremptory strikes, meaning they can excuse a prospective juror without cause. That leaves a buffer of at least 31 jurors.

Follow along with our live coverage.

Read our previous 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