Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

The Trial of John Jonchuck, Day 10: Bring on the experts

The defense calls its first expert witness, who we expect to say Jonchuck was insane when he killed his daughter.
JOSH (5:06 p.m.)

Thanks for following along. We’ll be back when testimony resumes Tuesday.

CLAIRE AND ZACK (5:05 p.m.)

Two questions won’t be answered. We won’t talk about what those were, and the jurors who asked them aren’t to talk about them, the judge says.

Helinger reads off the questions she deemed acceptable:

First, what was John addicted to?

“At the time he had issues with, spice was his main drug of choice,” Machlus says (unclear exactly what time this is referring to).

In January 2015, how long had John been off his medications at that point?

“He reported that he ran out or was running out of his meds in September (2014) and was rationing them at that point,” Machlus says, “so beginning in September he was not taking his full dosage.”

Can psychotic symptoms be turned off voluntarily?


What percentage of people can fake these symptoms or can fool you?

“I don’t have an answer to that question.”

Is an opinion of sanity vs insanity generally made by a psychologist versus a psychiatrist?


Was there something that ramped up his symptoms before her death?

He was experiencing a great deal of stress.

Can bipolar disorder mean one end of a person’s personality is totally psychotic and the other end totally sane?

“That is not the way the mental illness works,” Machlus says. “They have manic and depressive episodes, psychotic disorders have psychotic symptoms.”

We miss the next question, but it drew a similar response to the previous question.

“The question is a difficult one to answer because what is being combined is mental health terms with legal terms.” Insanity is a legal term, he explains, people don’t just turn on or off psychotic symptoms. It’s mixing the mental health definition with legal definitions, Machlus says. (That’s part of why insanity defenses are so complicated.)

Is the jury going to have access to all the evidence, even the items we didn’t see? Yes, Helinger says. As to the testimony, no, but when you’re deliberating if you want a readback of a witness, you can ask for that.

Do all the medications he is being treated with cure symptoms for the disorders? No.

If not, does he need to be on them forever? Machlus pauses. Yes, he says.

We’ll start back up at 9 a.m. Tuesday. “You get three days off but you can’t tell people what you’ve been doing these last two weeks,” Helinger says to the jury. She says some people will probably guess, but they can’t talk about it.

CLAIRE (4:47 p.m.)

Wait — could it be the end of the day?

Almost, but not quite.

The state will cross-examine Machlus on Tuesday. But first Helinger wants to address some juror questions.

“Good news is we’re going to call it a day after I receive the questions,” Helinger says.

Two jurors in the top row hand slips of paper to the deputy with questions. The lawyers approach the bench to determine if they should be asked in open court.

I do wonder if this is the most efficient approach, given that some of these questions could probably be answered during cross-examination. But that might just be my 5 p.m. on a Friday self talking.

JOSH AND CLAIRE (4:16 p.m.)

The jury is out of the room and we are a 15 minute break, until 4:30 p.m.

We’re having a 15-minute recess. “I know I told you Friday might be early,” Helinger tells the jurors. “Not so much.”


Machlus is looking at records from the jail, in which Jonchuck says he’s not suicidal. He wants to remain alive “for my child,” vacillating between understanding she’s dead, and then not accepting or not realizing she’s dead.

At the defense table, Jonchuck fidgets, turning his shoulders back and forth and then flipping a paper in front of McNeill’s seat.

The jury seems restless. We’re nearing 4 p.m. and this timeline of Jonchuck’s oddities has gone on for a long time now. Note-taking has all but ceased. The gallery has mostly cleared out.

Jonchuck was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, as we’ve heard.

Machlus recalls the time in the Pinellas County jail that Jonchuck said that he didn’t like Deputy Huff because “you’re the one who shot my kid.” Deputy Huff, for those who don’t remember, is a Manatee County sheriff’s deputy. He sat with Jonchuck in the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office after Jonchuck was taken into custody and while he waited to be picked by St. Petersburg detectives. Huff doesn’t work in the Pinellas jail.

We are still on the powerpoint. So longer than Williams’ 45-minute estimate.

Finally, the defense asks Machlus about his analysis on Jonchuck’s sanity at the time of the offense. What, Williams says, is your opinion?

“That he was insane at the time of the offense.”

He has a severe mental disorder, Machlus says, thaty puts Jonchuck out of touch with reality.

“He did not know the wrongfulness of his behavior,” Machlus says.

Machlus has a slide for that. He says:

  • Jonchuck was experiencing hallucinations and delusions at the time. “He was out of touch with reality.” He believed the world was coming to an end.
  • He believed he and Phoebe were possessed by demons, another delusion.
  • “He had the irrational belief that he and Phoebe had to die in order to save the world.”
  • He had hallucinations about these demons for at least a week.
  • He dropped Phoebe and left the scene “in a calm manner,” another sign, Machlus says, that Jonchuck did not know he’d done something wrong. The officer said Jonchuck had no expression on his face at the time.
  • Jonchuck seemed emotionless, with no expression on his face, when he dropped Phoebe, witness Officer Vickers said.
  • Jonchuck ignored orders from armed police officers.
  • Detective Huff later said Jonchuck was calm and emotionless in the interview room in Manatee County. He didn’t seem to react in a way that showed remorse or understanding of what he had done. The only thing he was showing emotion about was for his Bible at that time.”
  • Jonchuck asked to be taken to the Tampa airport, and the doctor says that’s another sign he did not understand the severity of what had just happened.
  • He reported that he dropped Phoebe, didn’t throw her, because he thought that distinction matters.
  • Jonchuck didn’t appear upset, and asked what he had done wrong.
  • “He obviously knows he’s in trouble, but he doesn’t know what he did that was wrong.”
  • Would a person commit the crime if a police officer were at his or her elbow? In Jonchuck’s case, yes, a St. Pete cop was standing in front of him, weapon drawn. Machlus says that means Jonchuck he didn’t understand the consequences of his behavior. Machlus invoked what he called the police officer-elbow test.

At the prosecution table, one of the doctors retained by the state attorney’s office, who has been watching Machlus, whispers something to lawyer Doug Ellis. WIlliams wraps up. We’re having a 1

Would a person commit the crime if a police officer were at his or her elbow? In Jonchuck’s case, yes, a St. Pete cop was standing in front of him, weapon drawn. Machlus says that means Jonchuck he didn’t understand the consequences of his behavior. Machlus invoked what he called the police officer-elbow test.

Forensic psychologist Scot Machlus testifies Friday. [Screenshot of pool video feed]

Machlus cites Jonchuck’s assertion to a police officer that he dropped Phoebe, not threw her. For some reason, Machlus says, Jonchuck felt this distinction was important to make.

Jonchuck also told the officer, “You don’t know what I’ve been going through.”

To Machlus, this seemed to refer to Jonchuck’s journey from church to church, and also to his fears of demonic possession.

“Don’t really know,” Machlus says, “but there’s certainly a lot going on in his life.”

Machlus points to other comments by Jonchuck that “he wasn’t really aware of the wrongfulness of what he just did.”

Right after this testimony, the prosecutors asked to speak to the judge at the bench. This is critically important for the defense’s case.

After his arrest, Jonchuck told the judge he wanted to leave things in the hands of God instead of getting an attorney, Machlus recalls. He explains this goes to religious preoccupation.

Machlus is explaining it’s important to review mental status as soon after an offense as possible. So he’s going over Pinellas County Jail records, which indicate Jonchuck knew he killed his daughter and did so because he was impotent. Though there seems to be some realization of what he did, Machlus says, “it’s so out of touch with reality.”

Jonchuck also made a grandiose pronouncement to be John the Baptist, Machlus says. This is all from the report of Dr. Hernandez at the jail, who we heard from yesterday.

“His demeanor is all over the place,” Machlus says, citing the reports from Dr. Hernandez.


Now we’re talking about the pursuit, when officers apprehended Jonchuck.

When Machlus talked to Jonchuck, he found out “John has a very, very vague memory.”

“He sort of remembers going toward the bridge but being blocked off, so he remembers hanging a U-turn and going back toward where he dropped Phoebe,” Machlus says. “He has a very distorted recall.”

"The interactions with Sgt. Hubble are quite bizarre,” Machlus says. We heard former Sgt. Hubble testify earlier this week about Jonchuck referring to himself as God and mentioning Michael, the name that has come up often the last few days referring to the archangel.

He also made comments about another ice age coming, and needing to travel south to avoid this ice age.

“Very delusional,” Machlus says.

We (and the jury) have heard all of this. Machlus reiterates how Jonchuck was screaming for his Bile.

“The Bible seemed to be the most important thing to him,” Machlus says.

Machlus plays clips from the interview at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office that jurors saw long portions of earlier this week. There are familiar quotes about “something obviously going on, beyond me, beyond everything,” and about a “conspiracy.” There’s a clip of Jonchuck asking for his Bible, and a clip of Jonchuck rambling about the Catholic Church, his quest for a baptism, only being able to refer to himself as “John” when asked for his name.

The jurors have seen this video, but they seem to be watching it closely once again. One squints at the screen.

“There is a great deal in this clip that there are signs of paranoia,” Machlus says.

Machlus says when he evaluated Jonchuck, Jonchuck had disorganized thinking and speech. Machlus only interviewed Jonchuck after Phoebe’s death, in January 2015 and July 2017. Machlus’ testimony today bridges that gap, showing the jurors that both before and after killing Phoebe, Jonchuck was delusional. This could be important, as the jurors are charged with interpreting Jonchuck’s mental state at the time he dropped his daughter.

“He’s going from topic to topic to topic,” the psychologist continues, connecting Jonchuck’s speech to disorganized thinking.

“There’s very little expression on his face,” Machlus explains, putting that to negative symptoms (flat affect). “You would expect someone in this situation to show more emotion.”

This testimony right here is almost certainly why the defense hammered on Jonchuck’s blank stare when his PT Cruiser came to a stop on I-75 and he was apprehended at gunpoint.

CLAIRE AND ZACK (3:32 p.m.)

OK, now we’re up to the night Jonchuck takes Phoebe.

There’s video of the PT Cruiser running a red light, “John driving very erratically.”

“Just because somebody is psychotic, doesn’t mean they can’t take care of themselves generally, doesn’t mean they can’t drive a car,” Machlus explains. “But I think this is a good example — John is driving a car, but he’s doing it in an extremely disorganized way... He’s acting very erratic... the irrational, illogical thinking, the psychotic thinking.”

At 12:07 a.m. on Jan. 8, 2015, Machlus says, Vickers reports a car goes past him 100 mph driving recklessly on I-275.

“John sped right past this patrol car,” Machlus says. Vickers was in a marked cruiser.

Machlus begins to talk about the moment Jonchuck dropped Phoebe from the top of the bridge. Machlus explains that he thinks Jonchuck was wearing clothes that were inappropriate for a cold night, including pajama bottoms.

“At this point John yells, ‘You have no free will,” Machlus says. “I asked John what he meant by that and what he reported is he did not know.”

He dropped her.

Machlus says when he asked about that, Jonchuck told the psychologist he had held Phoebe by her foot when he dropped her, which is not what Officer Vickers saw.

Then Jonchuck got into his car and drove away — calmly, Machlus says.

CLAIRE (3:27 p.m.)

After his visit to Saint Paul in Tampa, when Jonchuck met Father Swengros, Jonchuck visited a man named Reverend Teller and said that he could see the devil everywhere, that he was concerned about what was happening in the world. Jonchuck asked about an exorcism, Machlus reports. Jonchuck called a number the reverend gave him, but got no response.

Soon, Williams puts a check on the poster board next to “disorganized thinking.”

We’re talking about the gold cross Phoebe began to wear, and the Bible under Jonchuck’s pillow.

Jonchuck wrote another email to Torres about how his mother would provide some more money in his custody case, “lol haha,” and that they were “members of Saint Paul’s now.”

“There again is that inappropriate laughter, that disorganized behavior,” Machlus says.

The jury is paying attention, writing notes, but this is definitely a slow segment of testimony for everybody. Helinger had been watching the powerpoint next to the jury but now she’s back up in the box.


Machlus next introduces evidence that law enforcement collected from Melody Dishman, who said that Jonchuck told her on Jan. 6, through phone calls and text messages, that she was a “parish of God,” “that she was the Pope,” and that “she had to walk on water.”

“He also indicated that he wanted to kill Melody because she was “possessed by a demon,” and that he was God.

“This was all in one day?” Williams asks. Yes, all in one day. From calling her a parish of God to a demon.

Machlus calls it paranoid and grandiose delusions.

All of a sudden, we think Jessica Manuele objects to her own colleague’s line of questioning, or to something Machlus was saying. The judge, who had stepped off the bench to watch the powerpoint and listen to Machlus address the jury, returned to the bench for a conference with the lawyers.

Not really sure what that was about.

We’re moving on to Jonchuck’s visit to Torres’s office. That’s when he wore pajamas and mentioned her return from “the city of Babylon.”

Now Machlus is going item by item down a lot of the strange acts and behavior we’ve previously heard Jonchuck doing in the days and weeks before he killed Phoebe.

Like that Phoebe would start changing or speaking in tongues when she touched the Bible. Machlus called that an auditory hallucination.

Or when Jonchuck asked his custody lawyer, Genevieve Torres, to read the Swedish Bible. Jonchuck was acting “despondent, sad as well as strange” when she said she couldn’t read the Bible.

He wanted her to file a paternity suit against Phoebe’s mother, and also said none of this would matter anymore.

“We have a lot of delusional thinking at this point,” Machlus says.

And that Jonchuck claimed to be the Pope. Another example, Machlus said, of grandiose delusion.

JOSH AND CLAIRE (2:55 p.m.)

The judge asked Greg Williams how much longer he thinks the powerpoint will continue. He looks at the clock on the wall.

“Uhhh,” he wavers. “Maybe 45 minutes.”

A woman in the gallery sighs audibly. ”Oh... my God.”


Not a lot of pens moving over in the jury box right now.

Machlus now says he asked Jonchuck about these text messages, trying to figure out what Jonchuck meant by them.

“I don’t know why I would write that,” Machlus recalls Jonchuck saying about claiming someone named “Doug” was his father.

About the text that says “I found the key to unlock my gift,” Jonchuck reportedly explained that that referred to his ability to “read minds,” which Machlus points to as another delusion.

Machlus brings up the argument we heard about earlier today in which Jonchuck called his mother a “piece of s---” and promised to “f--- up her life.” This is when he was also making strange comments that he was Michele’s mother — which Machlus calls another delusion.

It was the next morning that Jonchuck spoke with Torres. Machlus has also spoken with Torres, who described Jonchuck as laughing, loud, hyper, etc. — a manic episode, Machlus says.

Bench conference. A lot of jurors stretching and checking the clock. Yesterday a lot of them cheered when Judge Helinger said she expected to release them early today.

The judge called a recess until 2:50 p.m.


Machlus is walking through the days immediately before Jonchuck dropped Phoebe off the bridge. Jan. 2, 2015 — That’s when Jonchuck emailed Genevieve Torres, the custody attorney. Machlus reads out loud a long, rambling message in which Jonchuck raises concerns about Michelle Kerr.

“This seems to be sort of pressured speech, just one word after another,” Machlus says. He points out circumstantial markers of disorganized thought and speaking. It’s not wildly off-track, but is not perfectly lucid either.

The next day, those texts about “Chinese drywall” to Jonchuck’s uncle, Bryan Morris started. We heard those read by a police officer in earlier testimony.

“His thinking is grossly disorganized, and that is reflected in his writing,” Machlus explains.

The timeline here is redundant, the jury has heard it all. But the defense is trying to have Machlus connect each incident to specific medical symptoms. They’re trying to take what may seem crazy and prove it was evidence of legal insanity.

But, there’s still one critical piece of testimony we have not yet heard: that any of this impeded his ability to discern right from wrong. It seems reasonably well established by now that Jonchuck had, and still has, serious mental health issues. But that’s only the prerequisite part of an insanity defense. Jurors need to hear that Jonchuck didn’t know what he was doing, or didn’t know it was wrong when he dropped Phoebe.

ZACK AND JOSH (2:22 p.m.)

The poster board comes back into play. Williams, using a marker, is checking boxes next to the listed symptoms as Machlus explains how Jonchuck was showing them.

Machlus talks about Jonchuck sleeping with the Bible. Machlus cites law enforcement and says Jonchuck told them that he had asked for his stepmother’s Swedish Bible, and as soon as he got it, he heard a knocking coming from the Bible. (That’s an auditory hallucination, Williams notes.)

The idea that Jonchuck had to keeping out evil spirits, Machlus said, is an example of a paranoid delusion.

Jonchuck’s father did not see his son using alcohol or drugs, according to Machlus. For the defense, that likely eliminates possible alternative reasons for why Jonchuck was behaving as he was.

Around this same time, according to Mickey Jonchuck, her stepson began referring to himself as the Pope and spreading salt around the house. That’s a “grandiose delusion, thinking he is some amazing figure.” Machlus says that’s “way beyond” and inflated sense of self-esteem.

At the defense table, Jonchuck sits next to McNeill, looking down as she takes notes and then back up at the psychologist.

Michele Jonchuck said in December Jonchuck was throwing up and saying he was having heart palpitations. This, Machlus explains, shows anxiety. Later came his profession that her apartment had Chinese drywall and the walls were turning black. Machlus calls this a visual hallucination.

He explains Jonchuck describing Phoebe as possessed.


Now we’re moving to Thanksgiving/Christmas of 2014, Phoebe’s last.

Machlus notes that Jonchuck and Michelle Kerr, Phoebe’s mother, seemed to be having a better relationship around this time.

They had a Christmas dinner and Jonchuck supposedly thanked Michelle Kerr and Guy Kisser (her boyfriend) for having him over.

“During this whole period of time he is hearing voices, they’re not overwhelming to him,” Machlus says Jonchuck told him. The voices were not overwhelming Jonchuck, he explains.

During Christmas dinner, Jonchuck went outside and Guy Kisser said he had spotted Jonchuck talking to himself.

“That is a possible indicator that they’re hearing auditory hallucinations and they’re responding back to those voices that they’re hearing,” Machlus says.

At one point, Jonchuck thought he was having heart pains, but instead found it was anxiety.

During this point in the evaluation, Machlus says, Jonchuck reported that the voices were getting louder, that he believed he and Phoebe were possessed.

Machlus notes evidence that domestic violence was an issue for Michelle Kerr and Guy Kisser.

He talks about the salt, about John Jonchuck Sr.’s comments that Jonchuck was becoming obsessed with God and religious ideas, and that this preoccupation was “very odd” to the elder Jonchuck.


Machlus says he reviewed all of Arthur’s notes from his treatment when Jonchuck was 21.

John was having anger episodes and issues with paranoia, “he’s blowing up at people,” Machlus explains. Williams asks if at this point there were signs of delusions.

Yes, Machlus replies, and Jonchuck was given Seroquel, Zoloft and Ambien.

Next, John is 23, in December of 2012, and Arthur’s notes show that Jonchuck is experiencing somatic hallucinations, meaning he was feeling his skin bubbling even though it was not. “I’m losing it,” Arthur quoted Jonchuck as saying, according to Machlus.

Another doctor, according to the notes, said Jonchuck was “totally disabled” because of seizures at the time, Machlus explains to jurors.

Arthur goes on to note later that even though Jonchuck wanted to work, he could not do it because of a lack of focus. Throughout these years, Jonchuck continued to be prescribed a litany of medications.

The jurors here are taking close notes and watching the powerpoint attentively. I think it’s helping them slow down and follow Machlus’ thread, which could otherwise be confusing as he explains medical notes from another doctor over several years.

For at least three years, Machlus says, John was experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder and an anxiety disorder. In September 2013, he says, Arthur noted John had gone to the hospital because of seizures.

We jump forward to September 2014, when John says he started to hear voices, according to Machlus. He had a prescription for Seroquel at this point, and he tried to get it filled at Walgreens, but they didn’t fill it because the prescription had expired. They contacted Dr. Arthur, according to Machlus, but Arthur at this point told the pharmacists Jonchuck was no longer his patient.

Jonchuck said he had a little of his medication left, according to Machlus, so he tried to ration it and break his dosages in half.

This would have been a few months before he killed Phoebe.

CLAIRE (2 p.m.)

Brief update on the media situation here in the courtroom. Earlier today, you may remember, Judge Chris Helinger asked Tampa Bay Times photographer Doug Clifford to leave the courtroom when she took issue with the possible content of his photography. She has been sensitive throughout the trial to images of jurors.

Clifford was also serving as the photographer for the entire media pool. We’re hearing that we won’t be able to bring him, or any other Times photographer, back into the courtroom today. We expect the judge to hear a motion from the Times the next time court is in session, on Tuesday.

We’ll update you when we have more concrete news.


Machlus says he asked Jonchuck about his mother. Jonchuck reported that his mom had a history of bipolar disorder.

Certain disorders run in families, Machlus says. Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and related conditions have genetic links.

Really driving home the Psych 101 feeling is the screening of a Powerpoint slideshow.

The powerpoint is titled: John Jonchuck Jr.

The clicker is not working to change slides. Court pauses for technical difficulties.

John was diagnosed with ADHD, Machlus explains. That’s a common term — it involves hyperactivity and impulsivity. He was prescribed medications.

At the age of 12, Jonchuck was receiving mental health treatment, Machlus says.

He continues by saying that at age 16, Jonchuck was Baker Acted. Machlus says this means Jonchuck was put into a psychiatric hospital because he was deemed to be a risk to himself or others.

The slideshow slides are white, with small black lettering. It’s impossible to read from the gallery.

Jonchuck was diagnosed with major depression, Machlus says, and prescribed medication. This is different than common usage of the term depression and the medical definition, it’s not just sadness.

John Jonchuck Sr. and Mickey Jonchuck (stepmother) told people at Morton Plant Hospital after the Baker Act that Jonchuck had a long history of mental health issues and acting out, according to Machlus.

At age 21, Jonchuck began seeing a psychiatrist, Machlus explains. This is a Dr. Gary Arthur in Tampa. We heard him mentioned this morning when the defense asked Michele Jonchuck if Dr. Arthur had diagnosed her with bipolar disorder.

Arthur observed Jonchuck was having manic episodes and anxiety acts, Machlus explains. “He diagnosed John at age 21 with bipolar disorder, panic disorder and ADHD.” He prescribed Abilify and Adderall.

JOSH (1:42 p.m.)

While you’re enjoying Machlus’ testimony, catch up on some of 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


Back from lunch and Williams is diving right into questioning.

Machlus recalls he conducted his evaluation when Jonchuck was 27 years old. He’s now 29.

One juror nods, another holds a styrofoam cup from lunch.

Machlus says Jonchuck suffers from a mental illness and he diagnosed Jonchuck with bipolar disorder with psychotic features. That’s different than the schizoaffective disorder we’ve heard referenced at other points this week. Jonchuck’s schizoaffective disorder, we’ve heard, includes elements of both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Several jurors write down the diagnosis.

Bipolar disorder, Machlus explains, includes manic and depressive episodes (“It used to be known as manic depression,” he explains). Those with the disorder may swing between euphoria and agitation, grandiosity and depression, insomnia and distraction. They can be suicidal.

They can also get obsessed with ideas, “such as with religion,” Machlus says.

The psychotic features are listed on a posterboard that defense lawyer Greg Williams is setting up on a stand in the courtroom. Machlus stands to give the jurors a courtroom psych 101 class:

Delusion — an irrational false belief that the person will not relinquish, for instance a paranoid delusion like thinking the CIA or FBI have put microphones in their head.

Hallucinations — usually auditory, and visual, maybe olfactory or somatic; seeing, hearing, smelling or feeling things that are not happening

Disorganized thinking — a continuum. On one side is distraction, losing one’s train of thought. On the other end of the spectrum is irrationality. Irrational speech and disorganized writing.

Grossly disorganized behavior — When someone acts without purpose, or acts bizarrely.

Negative symptoms. A number of different symptoms relate to this; the most common is having no expression. “In most instances, indivs who are happy show happy expressions,” Machlus said. Those who are angry look angry.

“But for the individual experiencing psychosis, it’s flat, no expression whatsoever.”

Machlus speaks with his hands in front of his stomach, sometimes moving them to drive home his explanations to the jurors, who are all attentive after returning from lunch.

ZACK (11:53 a.m.)

Machlus says not all of the insanity cases he has worked on have involved homicide charges.

He recalls meeting Jonchuck more than four years ago:

“When I saw him, he was naked in the middle of his cell,” Machlus says. Jonchuck did not respond to questions other than to sometimes mumble to himself incoherently.

Machlus says he next saw Jonchuck in February 2017. He conducted an evaluation of Jonchuck’s competency. That time, he remembers, Jonchuck was cooperative.

Williams begins to ask about competency, but Bolan objects, and we’re headed for another bench conference. Machlus looks away, even though it’s happening right next to him. He stares at the jurors.

Questioning again, Williams returns to Machlus’ visits to Jonchuck. His next evaluations were over multiple days in July 2017. These had to do with determining whether Jonchuck was insane at the time of the killing.

Machlus says he looks at police, mental health, medical records and also interviews the defendant when making this kind of assessment. He further gathers information from family members and people who know the defendant, and he conducts psychological testing.

For the Jonchuck evaluation, he says, he looked at several different police reports and evidence from various agencies, and the video of Jonchuck’s interview with detectives we saw earlier this week in court. He also looked at the depositions of several witnesses.

Now we’re taking a break for lunch until 1:15 p.m. Jurors can collect their payment for this week, Helinger says, but two are being overpaid by $30 because of a computer error. They’re being asked to go return that money on the second floor. They get $15 a day for the first three days, then $30 a day after that. Not a lot.

Before we break, we’ll mention that Jonchuck’s jail logs for today showed nothing new. A cell inspection last night, receiving meals and medication as usual.

ZACK AND JOSH (11:33 p.m.)

Defense attorney Greg Williams asks Machlus to run the jury through his CV. This process is to qualify Machlus as an expert witness.

Machlus says his practice is in forensic psychology. That means his analysis has to do with legal matters, he testifies in court, he evaluates people who are accused of crimes. He says he’s done hundreds of evaluations for court proceedings.

Machlus is also a court-appointed evaluator in the circuit that covers Hernando, Citrus and some other counties.

He says he’s done competency evaluations about 450 times.

Machlus is talking slowly, looking right at the jury, explaining his complicated work in simple terms. He’s clearly done this before. He’s worked on approximately 35-40 death penalty cases. For a while, it seemed the Jonchuck trial was headed to a potential judgement on the death penalty, but the prosecution took that off the table. You can read about the decision here.

Machlus says he has worked on about 100 insanity evaluations, mostly for the defense. Approximately 25 percent of the time, he says, he found the defendants to be insane.

The public defender’s office first hired him for the Jonchuck case in January 2015 (that’s right after Phoebe’s death).

Machlus saw Jonchuck on Jan. 30, 2015 in the Pinellas County Jail.

ZACK, CLAIRE AND JOSH (11:22 a.m.)

“The remaining question that was asked by a juror will not be answered,” Judge Helinger says as the jury returns. She asks them not to discuss the question.

Scot Machlus is the next witness. That means we’re into the expert testimony, which other experts can watch. Dr. Emily Lazarou, and it looks like one other doctor we don’t know, come into the room to observe.

Frankly, the experts may be what determine this case. These are the people who will analyze whether Jonchuck was insane when he killed Phoebe. Now’s a good time to read Josh’s story previewing this trial: The trial of John Jonchuck comes down to one question: Evil or insane?

ZACK AND CLAIRE (11:21 a.m.)

After Judge Helinger comes back, Manuele cites a previous case to try to convince the judge not to let in the evidence of prior bad acts. The defense lawyer is reading straight from her laptop.

Helinger looks up at the ceiling and rubs her palms.

Manuele continues reading the case. She mentions something called the Williams Rule, which allows evidence of prior crimes to come into court if that evidence isn’t just speaking to the defendant’s character but instead is explaining a potential motive or reason for committing the offense. She’s saying these acts don’t meet that bar.

This is something we’ve heard lawyers talk about, broadly, when they assess another high-profile Pinellas County case, that of Michael Drejka. He is accused of second-degree murder in the shooting of Markeis McGlockton, which touched off a debate about Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. If that case ever reaches trial, local attorneys expect the Williams Rule to be debated regarding prior road rage accusations against Drejka. You can read some about that here.

Manuele again says this testimony about a prior bad act has nothing to do with Phoebe or this case. That kind of information would just sidetrack the case and prejudice the jury, she says.

“Miss Manuele, this is sanity,” the judge says. “We’re not talking about character.”

If it’s not clear, this is a pivotal moment in the trial. That’s why Manuele is arguing so stridently. She suggests the court, if it lets this evidence in, is inviting error. That’s legal speak for it could be reason to appeal whatever the ruling is in this trial.

“Well, the second DCA says that’s reversible error,” Manuele says with clear exasperation.

“If that’s reversible error then it is, and the case gets kicked back,” Helinger says.

“It’s highly, highly prejudicial,” Manuele says.

“I mean, beating up your mother twice, that’s bad,” Helinger says. “But that doesn't mean it doesn’t come in.”

Ellis says the defense has brought this upon themselves by eliciting this testimony in the first place.

McNeill is looking at the juror’s question, saying it references “wild statements” that may have led to violence. Michele Jonchuck, in her testimony, made clear it was just arguments that precipitated the two acts in which Jonchuck was violent toward her previously.

It’s fascinating this is happening, because earlier in the week, when a juror asked about asking questions, she had said to the lawyers she normally doesn’t invite those kinds of questions. But because the juror spoke up, she felt she should describe the process to them early on. Since that point, we’ve now had multiple questions submitted by jurors.

Wow, Helinger now reverses, she’s not going to read the question and bring in that testimony. “I think it might be a big mistake. I’m not going to do it.”The defense looks vindicated.

We won’t bring Michele Jonchuck back up right now, though this issue could be addressed again after the expert witnesses testify.

ZACK (10:32 a.m.)

Yesterday, someone asked us if Jonchuck had received any mail in the Pinellas County Jail. We checked with the sheriff’s office, and he has not.

Covering this trial in such depth is expensive. We have five reporters — three writers and two photographers — in the courthouse every day. If you’re enjoying the live coverage, please consider subscribing to help fund our journalism.

CLAIRE (10:21 a.m.)

Ellis: “Phoebe was the light of your life?” Yes, Michele says, her voice breaking. “You were trying to get your life together and your act together?”

“And the best way to attack you would be through Phoebe?”


Attorneys wrap. Two jurors have questions for Michele.

Has John ever drugged you in the past? No, ma’am.

How did she know that John was taking his medications in 2013? Michele says she knew “to the best of her ability.”

And the photo that was being passed around of John holding Phoebe in a pool was taken in July 2013, Michele says.

ZACK (10:15 a.m.)

Manuele asks if Michele needs a minute. She says no. Back to questions about the days before Phoebe’s death.

Michele recalls that odd Monday morning, when John woke her up at 3 a.m. He, Phoebe, she and her cousin were all at her house.

John was yelling, Michele says. He said something like: Phoebe did not need to be pushed around like a hot potato. Michele has regained composure, she’s not crying, just staring at Manuele as she asks questions.

Jonchuck was saying odd things, Michele says: “He was acting like he was mother, saying ‘You know that I’m not the one who molested you when you were little, that your dad and your granddaddy did that to you.’”

She continues: “His eyes were, I can’t describe it, it was just like scary.”

We’re retreading familiar ground here. That night is when Jonchuck told her he would “f--- your whole life up.” Then he left with Phoebe.

She didn’t talk to her son again until Wednesday (the night before Phoebe died).

“I didn’t think he would do anything to Phoebe.”

Manuele wraps up and Ellis goes again.

CLAIRE (10:10 a.m.)

We’re back to Michele’s testimony. She’s recounting a strange outburst from Jonchuck a few days before Phoebe’s death, in which he told her, “you’re not my mom,” and started acting like he was Michele’s mother.

“And then that’s the night that he took Phoebe and he told me he was going to f--- my whole life up,” she says.

Ellis says, “He also said, quote, ‘You’re a piece of s--- and he’s tired of Phoebe being bounced around like a hot potato.’”

Yes, Michele says.

“Saying off the wall, bizarre things and mean things was not unusual for him, right?” Ellis asks, and Michele agrees. Jonchuck has said bizarre things since he was a teenager.

When Jonchuck promised to “f--- up” her life, Michele says she didn;t kow what that meant. It could have been a promise to mess up her probation, put drugs in her coffee or have sometihng to do with Phoebe. But John loved his daughter, she says.

But he didn’t want Michelle Kerr or her new boyfriend to get her, right? Ellis asks. “And a few days later he murders her, right?”

“Yes,” Michele says, crying, dabbing a tissue at her eyes.

John’s mouth hangs open.

CLAIRE AND JOSH (10:03 a.m.)

Our photographer Doug Clifford has been asked to leave the courtroom by Judge Chris Helinger.

He was photographing a piece of evidence as it was being passed around among jurors. We were instructed not to photograph the jurors. However, the photos he was taking were of the evidence. The jurors would not have been identifiable.

(Also, our agreement not to photograph jurors is a courtesy, not a legal obligation.)

A deputy approached Doug and asked to see the photograph. Subsequently the deputy approached the bench, and Helinger ordered Doug from the courtroom.

Reporter Zack Sampson stands up to object on behalf of the Tampa Bay Times.

The judge says she understands, though does not relent.

“You have a videographer in the courtroom,” she says. “You have a camera in the courtroom.”


The testimony continues. Manuele is asking quick questions, and MawMaw is giving short answers.

Did John seem concerned that Michelle Kerr was going to take Phoebe from him? Yes.

Were you concerned about that? Yes.

Did you think it was a realistic possibility that Michelle would get Phoebe? “I wasn’t sure.”

Manuele points MawMaw to her deposition, where MawMaw says, “He just kept thinking that Michelle was trying to get Phoebe away from him.”

Though, she went on to say in the deposition that she didn’t think Phoebe’s mom would get the girl because she wasn’t “a very compassionate, loving mother.”

In court, Michele says she still saw some likelihood that John could lose Phoebe.

Once again, Manuele is having Michele flip through her deposition, in which Michele says Jonchuck was trying to make sure Phoebe was his child. But in court, Michele is offering a different memory.

“Had he ever doubted that Phoebe was his child to you?” Manuele asks.

No, MawMaw says.

This does not seem to be going how the defense expected it would. During Michele’s deposition, she recalled a discussion with John during which he said he needed to see a lawyer to make sure that Phoebe was his child.

Lawyers asked her during the deposition if John had ever doubted the paternity of Phoebe before. She said no. “I was like what is wrong with him,” she said in the deposition.

Back to the questions in court, where Manuele picks up with medical issues. Jonchuck in the days before the killing complained about high blood pressure, and Michele says he appeared to be sick.

Michele had gotten Jonchuck a job at a Jamaican restaurant. But he only went, at most, three days.

“He was supposed to go that Thursday morning after he dropped Phoebe off at school," Michele says. She remembers she would pick the girl up.

That’s the day Phoebe died.

One of the defense lawyer's pencil bags is labeled "evidence." DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

OK, we’re back, but on a new train of thought.

“When Phoebe was born, you were still dealing with some issues of your own?” Manuele asks

Not at the time Phoebe was born, no, Michele replies.

“What about after Phoebe was born?” the defense attorney says.

“Yes, I got in a predicament, yes,” Michele explains.

She was on probation for a period of time after Phoebe was born, Manuele establishes, but prosecutor Doug Ellis objects, saying Manuele is leading the witness.

It seems like Manuele and Michele Jonchuck are on different pages here — you get a feeling of tension. Manuele’s questioning is rapid, and sharp. Remember, the defense has blamed John’s unstable upbringing as a contributor to his worsening mental illness.

Michele says she was around when John found out Phoebe was going to be born. He was happy, she says. She says she never saw anything to make her doubt that her son loved Phoebe.

“When he was moving around and unstable, did you always make sure Phoebe was taken care of?”

Michele says yes.

“Did you make sure she was dressed and clean?”


We jump to the days before Phoebe died. Something about MawMaw’s apartment was concerning to John — that it had Chinese drywall, and was affecting Phoebe. He called Michele, worried, while she was at work.

“He told me that food was turning black,” Michele says, and that the walls were black. Michele checked it out — not true.

“He said her eyes looked possessed,” Michele says Jonchuck said. But they didn’t, Michele remembers.

Jonchuck, sitting at the defense table, is staring straight ahead during this testimony. He’s not displaying the same kind of upset response he did the first time he saw his mom earlier this week. Before that day, she said, she had last seen her son about three years ago.

“Did John tell you that he thought Phoebe was possessed?”


“Did he indicate that Phoebe was Michael, the fallen angel?”


Those comments, Michele recalls, came on Jan. 7, 2015, the day before Jonchuck dropped his daughter off the Dick Misener Bridge.

Michele Jonchuck testifies Friday in the murder trial of John Jonchuck. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

We’re ready for MawMaw.

Michele Jonchuck enters wearing a bright pink shirt again and thick white coat. She’s clutching a tissue.

Jonchuck looks ahead as his mother sits.

Manuele dives right in.

“Have you ever been diagnosed with bipolar disorder?”

Michele says no. Manuele presses, asking if she’s ever been treated for bipolar disorder, or if she’s ever reported that to state child welfare authorities.

Prosecution calls for a brief bench conference. After that, Manuele rifles through stacks of paperwork. Already we’ve paused.

ZACK (9:17 a.m.)

Jonchuck enters the courtroom wearing a tan shirt and dark patterned tie. He sits as he and Judge Chris Helinger exchange good mornings. Then he begins to talk with two of his public defenders, Jane McNeill and Jessica Manuele.

Only one person in the gallery so far today.

The jury is about to come in, and then we’ll start testimony.

CLAIRE (9:15 a.m.)

Good morning from Courtroom 2, where MawMaw Jonchuck is waiting in the wings. John Jonchuck’s mother Michele, whom Phoebe called MawMaw, will soon take the stand again.

This time, we expect, we’ll hear about more than just Phoebe’s fear of swimming. The defense, seeking to bolster its argument that Jonchuck was insane when he dropped Phoebe off the bridge, may Michele Jonchuck about whether she used drugs when she was pregnant with Jonchuck.

That’s something Jonchuck’s dad, John Jonchuck Sr., brought up in his testimony the other day.

They may also ask her more questions about Jonchuck’s behavior in the days leading up to Phoebe’s death.

Read about the first time she testified here.

Defendant John Jonchuck takes his seat in the courtroom Friday. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times


Thursday ended on a strong note for the defense, as jurors heard from a series of doctors and a counselor who walked them through Jonchuck’s severe mental health issues. They each shot down the idea that Jonchuck could be exaggerating or faking his issues, and they elaborated on what his diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder means.

In a striking bit of testimony, Heather Davis, the counseling and social services supervisor at the North Florida Treatment and Evaluation Center, recounted how she told Jonchuck his daughter was dead.

He had been constantly asking how she was doing. He’d even ask to speak to her. Once his medications had him more lucid, she said, she sat him down at a picnic table and told him Phoebe had died “from an incident that he was involved in where he dropped her off the bridge.”

“He was crying first, and I expected that, but after some point he became, like, no emotion — numb, shock, something like that,” she said. After she told him he went back to his room. He stayed in that numb state for days.

Later, his condition would keep improving, Davis said — once he kept to his medication regimen.

The defense also called a priest and a church employee, as well as Jonchuck’s custody attorney, to reiterate some of his more bizarre ramblings about Bibles and the angel Michael.

Tomorrow, expect more mental health testimony, as jurors will hear from another expert. We also expect that at some point Jonchuck’s mother Michele Jonchuck, known as MawMaw, may return to the witness stand. She spoke a few days ago when the state called her, but they kept questions limited to Phoebe’s fear of swimming. Should she be called back, expect a broader line of questioning.

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