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The Trial of John Jonchuck Day 12: With competency confirmed, the case goes on

Watch as proceedings begin again after a delay for questions about Jonchuck’s competency
JOSH, ZACK AND LANE (4:55 p.m.)

That’s it for the day. On his way out of the courtroom for the last time today, Jonchuck waved goodbye to his lawyer, Jessica Manuele. Court will reconvene at 9 a.m.

LANE, ZACK AND JOSH (4:48 p.m.)

The defense calls St. Petersburg police Sgt. Kenny Miller to the stand, who testified last week and was the detective investigating Phoebe’s death.

Manuele asks about how many Bibles were collected from Jonchuck’s car that night.

Two, Miller says. Manuele brings a Bible over to Miller and shows him some glass in the book, which he agrees is likely from when officers smashed the glass to get into Jonchuck’s car. Miller identifies that it’s a Gideon’s Bible.

Manuele then shows another Bible, which Miller says detectives were given by Melody Dishman.

Miller recalls Jonchuck moved out of Dishman’s house around Halloween 2014.

Next, Manuele shows another piece of evidence that Miller identifies as Jonchuck’s cell phone. She establishes that it was entered into evidence in April, months after Phoebe died. And a $100 bill which “could have been in his wallet” when he was arrested, says the sergeant.

Defense #11 evidence is a cross necklace “that could have been on Phoebe Jonchuck at the time of her death,” Miller says. She was wearing that necklace when her body was found floating in Tampa Bay.

Manuele asks if Jonchuck’s family members told him they had a fight with him that night. No, Miller says.

The sergeant goes on to say he had no indication Jonchuck was on drugs or alcohol when he killed Phoebe.

Bolan comes up for cross-examination. Miller explains that before the cell phone was entered into evidence, it was locked in his desk.

The questioning continues, and Miller says Jonchuck’s mother never mentioned a threat that he’d made to her the day before the murder. “She was off and on, hysterical, we tried to calm her down,” the sergeant says.

Lawyers are done with the police officer, but a juror has another question: Did Miller drug test Jonchuck after his arrest?

“No I did not,” Miller says.

“Ladies and gentlemen, that’s it for today,” says the judge.

The jury is to report to the courthouse by 9 a.m. tomorrow.

JOSH (4:41 p.m.)

One juror told Deputy Rice he had a procedural question about the trial. The judge calls the deputy to testify, forcing him to swear to an abbreviated oath.

The deputy says the question was, when the judge is reading the jurors questions aloud, she is reading their names. Is the media capturing the names.

“To answer his question, yes,” the judge says.

Prosecutor Doug Ellis suggests just not calling the jurors by name. But Helinger says that wouldn’t work, as the Florida Supreme Court has said it’s appropriate to identify the juror who asked the question, and then ask afterward, “Has your questions been answered?”

The jury is brought back in, and Helinger is now explaining that to the jury that everything that happens in the courtroom is being released to the media, including their names if she says them aloud.

From this point forward, the judge says, she is going to identify the jurors by the numbers that were given to them by jury services when they were called. But one woman has forgotten her number. The judge reads it allowed: No. 2247.

The judge reiterates that the jurors’ names and addresses will be withheld from the public for two weeks after the trial, at which point they become part of the public record. And the jurors are not being photographed or captured on video.

“That’s one of the agreements with the press that goes along with their right and/or privilege to be here,” she says. There is no legal prohibition on photographing jurors; the news organizations abide by that rule as a courtesy.

A juror asks how their names will be made public. The judge says anyone who wants them will have to put a request in with the Pinellas County Clerk of Court.

ZACK (4:23 p.m.)

While we were in a break, Lane and photographer Scott Keeler looked at some of the evidence admitted into the trial so far. One piece is an undated photo that jurors saw last week. It shows Jonchuck holding his daughter in a pool.

A photo of defendant John Jonchuck holding his daughter, Phoebe, in a pool. The photo is evidence in his murder trial. SCOTT KEELER | TIMES
JOSH (4:07 p.m.)

It’s a little hard to believe that during Manuele’s redirect, she didn’t drive home the point with Otto that while he believes Jonchuck knew dropping Phoebe off the bridge would kill her, Otto doesn’t think Jonchuck knew it was wrong.

To be found not guilty by reason of insanity, a defendant must have a mental illness, and that mental illness must prevent that person from knowing what they are doing, or knowing the consequences of what they do.

If the jurors believe Otto, that Jonchuck knew dropping Phoebe would kill her, it seems the defense’s only chance at winning a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity is hammering in that Jonchuck didn’t know it was wrong to kill her.

He had told Otto, and others, that he needed to kill Phoebe and himself to save the world.

LANE AND ZACK (4:05 p.m.)

“Why is psychosis not a diagnosis?” one juror asks.

“Mental illness is broad, and there are different categories and types of impairments,” says Otto. “There’s another category: mood disorders depression. And another kind: secondary to a traumatic brain injury.”

Jonchuck said he had stopped using drugs three to four weeks before the end of 2014.

Another juror asks if the email with no punctuation could have been voice-to-text instead of typed? “Yeah, possible,” says Otto. “That’s a good point.”

Could the 2014 hallucinations have been caused by spice or crystal meth? “Yes,” says the psychologist. “Those drugs can cause those symptoms.”

(There was at least one other question in between here that was hard to follow.)

Was an IQ test administered? Otto says he does not believe anyone who has treated or assessed Jonchuck has performed an IQ test.

We pause, and another juror writes a question down. “Take your time,” the judge says.

The jurors have certainly asked more questions as the trial has continued. These are the most we’ve seen for any witness.

Does his IQ affect his diagnosis? Otto says only if his intellectual functioning was “significantly compromised,” which is not the case with Jonchuck.

“People who are brilliant ... they can have all these problems,” Otto continues, after the juror asks if a high IQ would change the diagnosis.

No one has ruled out organic brain damage? Otto says no.

Manuele then has a follow up. She asks if Otto saw evidence Jonchuck had been treated for seizures in the past? Yes.

And drugs can cause hallucinations? “Many,” Otto says.

Did Otto observe any evidence to suggest Jonchuck’s hallucinations were caused by drugs in January of 2015? No.

Onto issues of potential drug use by Jonchuck’s mother when she was pregnant with him....

Using drugs in utero could cause brain impairment, or damage to your central nervous system, Otto says. “If your mother is drinking or using a lot of drugs while you’re in her stomach, you can have problems with attention, and all kinds of emotional and intellectual challenges,” he says.

Jonchuck’s dad said his mom might have used drugs while she was pregnant with him.

Then we hear the ripping of paper. Another juror question.

Could seizures have caused Jonchuck to kill his daughter? No, Otto says.

And then another question. Jonchuck looks up to the top row where a juror, after raising her hand, begins to write on a scrap of paper. She hands it down, and the lawyers approach to conference with Helinger once more.

Could withdrawal trigger symptoms if John stopped using drugs shortly before killing Phoebe? Otto says he does not think so.

And now Manuele has a follow up. The timing for the drug use ... did Jonchuck indicate he had stopped using drugs and have a relapse? Yes, in December of 2014, Otto explains. That’s the month before he killed Phoebe.

At least two of Jonchuck’s friends told the Times that they had smoked meth with him and that when he was on the drug, he turned even more paranoid and violent. Once, they said, they had been riding in the backseat while he was high and, as he drove over a bridge, he hit the gas and sped to more than 100 mph, frightening his friends so much they begged him to slow down.

LANE AND ZACK (3:39 p.m.)

Manuele up for redirect.

“Is paranoid thinking, could that be considered psychotic symptoms?” she asks. “Does Dr. Arthur make multiple notes talking about Mr. Jonchuck’s paranoid thinking?”

Otto flips through records and says the former doctor, Arthur, said Jonchuck was “making up paranoid scenarios” and having bodily hallucinations, where his skin was bubbling, in 2012. That doctor prescribed two medications.

Several of Jonchuck’s acquaintances told the Times that he was often paranoid, and sometimes thought that even his closest friends were turning against him. He moved Phoebe in with at least five different women, and ended up trashing some of their furniture in anger. He called authorities on the woman who ran Phoebe’s day care, alleging that she was using drugs. He attacked his mother, both physically and verbally. And he threatened Phoebe’s mom several times.

Manuele asks if Otto thinks Jonchuck killed Phoebe because of a personality disorder. No, he says.

Otto says he does not believe Jonchuck was misleading him during the test the state asked about. He says the test includes 334 items you check off. He’s staring at the jurors over his reading glasses and gesturing with his hands as he explains this. There are multiple scales relevant to the test. The scales that would typically be elevated if Jonchuck was faking symptoms were not elevated, the psychologist says.

Otto says he discounts the statement that was recounted in a deposition by Melody Dishman, Jonchuck’s friend who described him as saying when he was 12 years old that he would claim insanity if in criminal trouble. “People say all kinds of things,” Otto says.

“I don't think it works to your advantage if the goal is to kill your daughter to draw all kinds of attention by behaving in ways that would get people concerned.”

“I think that’s inconsistent with someone who is planning to kill his daughter and move on.”

Manuele asks if Jonchuck could have made up all the erratic behavior before he killed Phoebe to try to get away with premeditated murder.

Otto says Jonchuck’s “history of psychiatric symptoms long predates these events.”

Bolan has objected a couple of times during this part of the redirect, but Helinger has overruled him.

Manuele sits and the prosecutor stands back up. He clarifies that the delusion Jonchuck described years ago, of his skin bubbling, could have been caused by drug use.

Bolan asks whether the words “psychotic” or “psychosis” ever appear in Dr. Arthur’s records.

“I don’t remember ever seeing those words,” Otto says.

Bolan finishes and we’re onto juror questions for Dr. Otto.

Several pass yellow slips of paper to the deputy, who hands them to the judge.

LANE AND ZACK (3:22 p.m.)

Jonchuck told Otto that both he and Phoebe were possessed by demons. “So the delusion was so strong, he had to kill his child,” Bolan says. “And he had to die too."

Otto clarifies he’s not testifying that Jonchuck couldn’t control himself but that Jonchuck said he had to kill his daughter to save the world.

“He intended to kill Phoebe,” Otto says. “I think he reasonably believed that if he put her off the side of the bridge she would die.”

Public defenders Jane McNeill and Jessica Manuele lean toward each other to exchange words at the defense table.

Bolan asks whether there were any incidents of extreme psychosis in Jonchuck’s past.

“I think he was more impaired in jail than he had been in the past,” Otto says. “At least that’s been documented.”

Bolan asks if it was possible that Jonchuck was attempting suicide by cop. “Possible,” Otto says. “Probably could have done more to get killed — attacked the officer after he dropped Phoebe off the bridge or something like that.”

The prosecutor moves onto the email with missing punctuation. “Just because there is punctuation missing in an email doesn’t mean there’s signs of psychosis, right?” Bolan asks.

“It could be a sloppy writer or doesn’t know grammar,” Otto says, but Jonchuck “showed perfect grammar in his August email.”

“It stands in stark comparison in contrast,” the psychologist continues.

And: “It’s not just the punctuation marks, it was the kind of moving from topic to topic” and making assumptions that Torres knew about things she had no knowledge about.

Bolan finishes and sits down.

LANE (3:13 p.m.)

Otto says Jonchuck has a personality disorder. “I narrowed it to borderline features like having difficult and problematic interpersonal relationships. Having poorly controlled emotions. Seeing things in black and white terms: Someone is either wonderful, or they’re terrible,” the psychologist says. “And the people in your life, you’ll go back and forth about how you feel about them.”

Antisocial features are behaviors, typically characterized by not meeting your responsibilities, not following the rules, breaking the law. He has some of those features, Otto says of Jonchuck.

“I could have said antisocial personality disorders, when you put them all together..”

Otto says he didn’t see evidence of those disorders in Jonchuck’s early years, and if he had, his opinion might be different.

In fact, in our reporting for “The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck” we discovered multiple incidents in Jonchuck’s childhood where his family said he was violent and they feared him. He got kicked out of a dozen preschools. He attacked his dad when he was 12, which he said was in self-defense. He climbed on the roof and held a knife to ward off his dad, then cut his own arm. He kicked and injured his uncle’s small dog. He waxed the staircase at his uncle’s house so his uncle tumbled down the stairs, breaking three ribs. He beat up his mother more than once. He destroyed his dad’s house as a teenager, and frightened his step-mother so much that she fled to a hotel. And he told a friend that if he ever got into trouble, he would feign insanity.

“I really keyed on the domestic violence, which he admitted,” Otto says. “There was a lot of domestic violence.”

When he met with Genevieve Torres Jan. 6, Otto says, Jonchuck was acting logically, based on Torres’ testimony. But the next day, Jonchuck’s behavior turned erratic. He told her, “None of this will matter.”

Bolan is suggesting that statement is evidence of premeditation for the killing of Phoebe.

ZACK AND LANE (3:03 p.m.)

Paul Bolan stands and begins questioning Otto for the prosecution. He begins by clarifying that Otto is being $200 per hour by the defense to conduct his evaluation and testify.

“You’re more likely to be hired by the defense than that prosecution, right?” Bolan asks, Yes, Otto says, he has been brought on more often by the defense than the prosecution in previous cases.

The prosecutor moves on to the tests Otto administered.

Those tests do not tell whether the defendant suffered from psychosis on the bridge, correct?

Yes, says the psychologist. “No test goes back in time.”

Bolan takes small steps, pacing tightly at the lectern as he questions the psychologist. He focuses in on the one test Otto says he gave Jonchuck that delivered inconsistent results, the Personality Assessment Inventory. Otto says Jonchuck explained that he was upset by all they had talked about.

“Another option is he could have been faking his symptoms on that day,” Bolan says.

“It’s possible, but the rest of the test doesn’t suggest that,” Otto says. “But it is possible.”

Bolan is going back over the instabilities in Jonchuck’s life in the weeks before he killed Phoebe. There was a Social Security Administration letter found on him when he was arrested; Otto remembers it had to do with issues around the disbursement of benefits for Phoebe. (Note: We’ve looked at this letter. It explained that Jonchuck needed to file an accounting report or checks for Phoebe’s benefits would be sent to the agency’s local office instead of being direct deposited).

He’d been moving from place to place, Bolan continues, and had an unstable childhood. He never was diagnosed with schizophrenia or as being psychotic. “Psychosis is not a diagnosis,” Otto says. “But (Jonchuck’s former doctor) documents symptoms of psychosis in his notes.’

Jurors listen intently, swiveling their gaze between the psychologist, the prosecutor, and Jonchuck, who watches passively.

“At the end of 2014, the defendant reported his heaviest drug use, correct?” Bolan asks. The psychologist agrees.

A letter from the Social Security Administration defendant John Jonchuck had in his possession when he was arrested. SCOTT KEELER | Times
LANE AND ZACK (2:33 p.m.)

Jonchuck told Otto he had called a TV station to hold a press conference before Phoebe died, but he wasn’t sure what he was going to announce. Phone records show Jonchuck did call Fox 13.

In any case of claimed insanity you want to ensure those claims are genuine, Otto says, that people aren’t just making those up to get out of trouble, or avoid a situation. He reviewed other records, rather than just interviewing Jonchuck himself, to get a fuller picture of the case before making his evaluation.

Otto says he does not believe Jonchuck was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time he killed Phoebe. He also says he has never believed Jonchuck was faking symptoms of mental illness.

Manuele wraps up and we take a break until 2:45 p.m. Prosecutors should begin cross-examination then.

LANE AND ZACK (2:29 p.m.)

“Symptoms wax and wane,” Otto says. If you stop taking your medicine, or you run out of medicine, or start drinking alcohol, or are under stress, or haven’t slept, that might make things worse.

“We can’t look for all people with severe and persistent mental illness to be maniacs, that they’re bouncing off the walls or are walking like a zombie and can’t do anything,” the psychologist says.

Manuele shows Otto what she calls Defense Exhibit 8A through 8D … emails Jonchuck sent to his then-custody lawyer Genevieve Torres in August 2014. She also shows emails Jonchuck sent the attorney from Dec. 31 through January 2, 2015, days before he killed Phoebe.

In one of the emails, Jonchuck says Phoebe’s mom has a new boyfriend, Guy Kisser, who has guns and ammo at the house. In another, he tells Torres he looks forward to working with her, and will get a retainer to her soon, and thanks her for helping him get his daughter out of “drama.” Jonchuck wrote of Phoebe: "She is my world.”

The August email was well-written and punctuated, the psychologist says. But by January, Jonchuck had stopped using punctuation and his thoughts seemed to jump all over the place. More evidence, Otto says, of impaired thinking.

Manuele has Otto read these emails aloud in court. It’s impossible to know how the jury will receive this testimony, but the difference in tone in the emails is stark when the psychologist says the words aloud.

A white-haired woman in the jury box leans forward to whisper something to a man in the front row, who nods. Other jurors lean in to talk to each other.

A checklist shown to jurors by the defense in the John Jonchuck murder trial Wednesday. SCOTT KEELER | Times
JOSH, ZACK AND LANE (2:20 p.m.)

Manuele is now going over a point the prosecution has repeated, trying to dispense with it before Bolan or Ellis brings it up on cross-examination. Why is Jonchuck still alive if he was certain that both he and Phoebe needed to die?

That leads Otto to explain rational thinking through a dream sequence. Those of you who have been following the trial since the start will remember this idea mentioned in the imagery of a flying pancake during Manuele’s opening statement. You can read about that here.

Most people never experience the symptoms of severe mental illness like Jonchuck, Otto says. The closest way we can relate, he says, is by thinking of a dream.

“Maybe you’re sailing a plane in the ocean, and then a landshark comes up and saves you and takes you away,” Otto says. “And then you transport back in time. In the dream, it makes complete sense. And then you wake up and say, ‘That was a wild dream. That’s impossible, that’s irrational, that could never happen.’”

“I think we don’t want to make the mistake of trying to impose our rationality on something" that is clearly irrational or “wholly impaired,” he says. “That’s the nature of mental illness.”

LANE AND ZACK (2:12 p.m.)

“My opinion was Mr. Jonchuck was very impaired by symptoms of mental illness,” Otto says. “Some people will argue he simply wanted to kill his daughter, that he wasn’t impaired. My observation, from looking at police reports, is that he speeded and ran a red light in Tampa …. And why did he come to the attention of Officer Vickers? He sped by him. Why draw attention to yourself? Just the recklessness of driving at those rates of speed suggests impairment.”

Jonchuck had an officer directing him to do things, with a weapon trained on him, and he ignored the commands, Otto says. That doesn’t prove Jonchuck didn’t know what he was doing was wrong. But if you were completely healthy, and your plan was to get back at somebody, is that how you would go about it? He informed the officer that he “had no free will.”

“I see that as irrational,” Otto says.

One explanation was that Jonchuck was fleeing the scene, which would suggest he knew he had done something wrong. But there were confusing reports that he used his turn-signals, and that he wore his seatbelt on. Otto says it’s possible Jonchuck wore his seatbelt because “he knew he was in for a scary ride” or the action was just reflexive.

Jonchuck asked if he could leave the interrogation room and demanded his Bible, Otto says. He asked to be delivered to the airport, and to Babylon — more evidence, the psychologist says, of impaired thinking.

“At one point he asked what he did wrong. And he made a distinction between dropping his daughter off the bridge and throwing her off the bridge. As if that makes a distinction in terms of the law, or the wrongfulness of what he did. Who cares? What’s the relevance?” asks the psychologist. “That’s evidence of impaired thinking.”

Defendant John Jonchuck leaves the courtroom on a break Wednesday. SCOTT KEELER | Times
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (2:05 p.m.)

Otto explains that Jonchuck woke his mother up in the middle of the night, the night before he left his father’s house with Phoebe, and told his mother he could read her mind. He looks at his deposition to refresh his memory. “But I don’t see anything referencing a fight.”

During that time, Otto says, Jonchuck was confused about who were whose parents, both with his mother and his daughter. Jonchuck claimed to be his mother’s mother … but said it was not him that had abused her when she was a little girl. He also wanted proof that he was Phoebe’s dad. “That’s irrational thinking, the kind of confused thinking that is often associated with mental illness,” says the psychologist.

Jonchuck said he had scheduled a second meeting with his lawyer, but the lawyer said he just showed up for that meeting and she was able to fit him in. “He said when he was driving on the interstate he pulled over because he saw flashing lights,” Otto says. “Officer Vickers indicated he did not turn on the flashing lights until Mr. Jonchuck pulled over.”

After he dropped Phoebe over the bridge, Jonchuck said, he got to the toll booth and made a U-turn. That was his report to Otto. But Otto says it’s obvious in law enforcement reports that Jonchuck traveled over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

The psychologist says Jonchuck described himself as being unconscious, but police who arrested him explained that he sat in the driver’s seat with his hands on the steering wheel. Jonchuck claimed he was questioned in a warehouse, but it was actually a police station. Otto goes on to say Jonchuck described himself as “laughing insanely” at that facility.

But after reviewing audio and video tapes from after Jonchuck’s arrest, the psychologist says, “I did not see him laughing, so it seems contradictory, inconsistent.”

Manuele sets up a wooden easel in the center of the courtroom, with a white poster, but we can’t see what’s on it.

Otto carries on with his analysis.

Jonchuck believed his daughter was possessed, that the world was coming to an end, that an ice age was coming, and the archangel Michael was coming. None of that was true. “He had paranoid delusions, grandiose delusions,” says Otto. “He was God or the Pope, depending on who he was interacting with … and he will save the world by him and his daughter dying. ... I also think there was impaired thinking, how logically and rationally he was thinking were impaired. His plan was he and Phoebe were going to get baptized at the church …. At one point he returned to one of the churches with his step-mother to prove she was still alive.”

These are all descriptions we’ve heard before, but Otto is (like Scot Machlus before him) putting a psychologist’s point on it.

LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (1:50 p.m.)

Talking about his process, Otto sounds a lot like a reporter in the way he approaches his interviews with those he’s evaluating.

He asks them: How were you thinking, feeling and behaving at or around the time of the offense? … And: Did those symptoms make it so you did not know what you were doing? Or that you did not know what you were doing was wrong?

All he’s trying to do, Otto says, is get information that will help him form an opinion about what was happening at the time of the event.

Otto explains that he’s always concerned about accuracy when someone is remembering something from the past. He says that even everyone on the jury has surely forgotten things before. We’ve mentioned how he’s talking to them like students in a college class. One juror, in the top row, nods as Otto speaks.

Otto also explains memory contamination, which he says is common. “You can have a memory of an event, and then you talk about it with other people, and you incorporate it into your story,” he says. “You’re not trying to be deceptive, but that happens.”

Jonchuck started his story in the weeks leading up to the offense, Otto says. “He shared this increasing focus on religious issues. One of the first things he mentioned is his step-mother’s Swedish Bible, he heard it knocking, and he became increasingly concerned with the safety of his daughter and his family. That was consistent with the depositions of his father and step-mother. They both saw changes two weeks before the offense, which puts us into the third week of December,” Otto says.

Defendant John Jonchuck listens to testimony Wednesday. SCOTT KEELER | Times
JOSH, LANE AND ZACK (1:40 p.m.)

Reviewing the records from Jonchuck’s previous psychologist, Gary Arthur, allowed Otto to ascertain that long before the evening of Phoebe’s death, Jonchuck experienced symptoms of mental disorder, Otto says. “It doesn’t prove he was experiencing mental disorder that night he dropped his daughter from the bridge. But it explains what was going on in the years before.”

Arthur’s diagnosis was bipolar disorder. “In the old days, that used to be called manic depression,” Otto says. That’s marked by alternating periods of feeling depressed, down, perhaps suicidal, and also high on one’s self and very energetic.

Arthur also reported Jonchuck had trouble sleeping, and Otto says Jonchuck told him that he wasn’t sleeping in the months before Phoebe’s death.

Otto says Jonchuck also had attention deficit disorder, anxiety and problems sleeping, especially in the months before Phoebe’s death.

“He was very active, taking care of things in the middle of the night,” Otto says. “I don’t know if I’d characterize that as anxiety.”

Jonchuck told Otto he wasn’t receiving any mental health treatment after 2013, more than a year and a half before Phoebe died. His medications ran out, and he tried to refill one of the mood-stabilizing medications in September 2015, but the prescription was rejected.

Jurors continue to watch Otto closely and several take notes. We mentioned this yesterday, but he’s clearly comfortable speaking on the stand. He’s talking with his hands, moving deliberately over complex aspects of his analysis.

Jonchuck, at the defense table, sits as usual, looking forward.

Otto recalls asking Jonchuck to explain everything he could remember about what occurred, and to start at the beginning, wherever he thought that was.

University of South Florida psychologist Randy Otto testifies Wednesday in the murder trial of John Jonchuck. SCOTT KEELER | Times
LANE (1:30 p.m.)

Jessica Manuele, one of Jonchuck’s defense attorneys, asks Otto about tests he gave Jonchuck. One was meant to determine if Jonchuck was exaggerating his symptoms.

“Paranoid delusions, grandiose delusions, the result of that test indicated no attempt to exaggerate on Mr. Jonchuck’s part,” Otto says.

He did other tests to determine “gross impairments” in attention, memory, understanding language and expressing language. “I still had some concerns about attention and concentration. But certainly not to the level he was unable to interact with me.”

He also gave Jonchuck the Personality Assessment Inventory, a “self-report” test about life experiences, psychiatric symptoms, depression, anxiety, history of contact with the legal system, use of drugs and alcohol. “He wasn’t denying or minimizing problems,” says the psychologist. “However, he answered similar items in very inconsistent ways.”

Otto asked Jonchuck about that, he says. Jonchuck said he was distracted and upset. So Otto gave it another try. “No indications of exaggeration or fabrication.” Jonchuck acknowledge substance abuse, volatile relationships, contact with law enforcement and poorly controlled emotions in his past, Otto recalls. The psychologist says the test results showed Jonchuck’s mental state at the time they met, but not on the night of Phoebe’s death.

“Many people with severe or persistent mental illness also have a substance abuse problem,” Otto says. “That supports my diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder.”

He reviewed Jonchuck’s mental health records from 2011 to 2013, when another psychologist had evaluated and treated Jonchuck.

LANE, ZACK AND JOSH (1:18 p.m.)

Randy Otto, a USF psychologist, takes the stand to continue expert testimony he started yesterday afternoon.

Jonchuck is led back into court from a side room. He wears a light brown checkered shirt and long, patterned tie. Instead of “good mornings,” he and the judge trade “good afternoons.”

The jurors file in and take their seats. Everything as it was, but there has been a one-day gap in the proceedings for them. They can’t be sure why because the court can’t tell jurors about the competency concerns without risking the information influencing the verdict.

Defendant John Jonchuck enters the courtroom Wednesday afternoon. SCOTT KEELER | Times
LANE AND ZACK (1:15 p.m.)

Defense attorneys roll in metal carts filled with files. Prosecutors push in cardboard boxes of documents. Deputies bring in posters and boards, flip charts filled with evidence and maps.

A couple of spectators file into the gallery. Jonchuck and the jurors are still not in court.

Exactly 24 hours after testimony was supposed to resume following lunch yesterday, the trial of John Jonchuck moves forward.

LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (12:42 p.m.)

The psychologist watched a video tape of the defense’s explanation in court yesterday of Jonchuck’s reported hallucinations. Greg Williams, one of the public defenders, is questioning Cipriano about that now. He’s trying to get the psychologist to weigh in on what Jonchuck was seeing and hearing.

Williams asks: Did Jonchuck talk about each hallucination?

“I can’t say he did,” Cipriano says, explaining that he wrote down best he could what they were supposed to cover. For instance, he says, he did not ask Jonchuck about the claim that he had heard Randy Otto, another psychologist who testified yesterday, mention “Emily.” The “Emily” could refer to Dr. Emily Lazarou, a forensic psychiatrist who’s supposed to testify for the prosecution, and who the defense said was subject of several of Jonchuck’s hallucinations.

Williams asks: Did he tell you about any hallucinations he had back at the beginning of the trial, involving Dr. Lazarou? Cipriano recalls Jonchuck saying he told Lazarou, “Have a nice night” and she smirked at him.

Jonchuck reported also that he’d heard a voice outside his cell, according to Cipriano, and it was Dr. Lazarou saying, “You’re going to burn in hell if you don’t die.”

The psychologist flips through his notes. He recalls Jonchuck saying the jurors were white men, sitting in the back row. Jonchuck was pretty adamant about that, the psychologist says.

Jonchuck and the jurors aren’t in the courtroom.

Now the decision:

“He’s competent as to all six statutory criteria,” says the judge. “I find him competent to stand trial.”

Court will resume at 1:15 p.m. when the jurors come back, and Otto, the psychologist who started testifying yesterday, will take the stand again.

Psychologist Richard Cipriano testifies Wednesday. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Chris Helinger rules that John Jonchuck is competent to continue in his murder trial Wednesday. SCOTT KEELER | Times
JOSH, ZACK AND LANE (12:33 p.m.)

We’re back.

The psychologist, Richard Cipriano, is running through exactly what questions he asked Jonchuck and Jonchuck’s answers. He knew why he was arrested, what he was being charged with and details of the roles of everyone in court. This matches the criteria for a defendant to be declared competent, which we wrote about below.

Jonchuck described the judge as a referee. He said the role of the prosecutor is to get a conviction.

“I asked him to describe the definition for the terms not guilty,” Cipriano continues. “He told me it was no conviction. Guilty meant the person did it. No contest, you throw yourself at the mercy of the court. And it’s usually accepted as a guilty plea. Not guilty by reason of insanity, you didn't know right from wrong.”

Doug Ellis and Paul Bolan are in the courtroom for the prosecution. Greg Williams and Jane McNeill are there for the defense.

“I then asked about a plea bargain, and he said the state and defense work it out for lesser time,” Cipriano continues, recalling his conversation with Jonchuck. “You have to give up a guilty deal is essentially what he said.”

When asked what a jury was, the psychologist explains, Jonchuck said it was made up of registered voters who decide on the case.

LANE, ZACK AND JOSH (11:32 a.m.)

This morning, a court psychologist is evaluating John Jonchuck to see if he’s mentally competent to stand trial on a charge he murdered his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe.

If the 29-year-old Tampa man is found competent, witness testimony could continue this afternoon.

If he isn’t, the judge could call in another psychologist or call for a hearing. It could lead to a mistrial.

In court Tuesday, Jonchuck’s lawyers described how he had been hearing and seeing things since before jury selection even began. He thought a psychiatrist who had evaluated him was in the jail, saying mean things about his attorney. He thought the prosecutor was whispering about him behind a legal pad. He said he heard jurors talking about him, and photographers calling him, and witnesses saying things they didn’t say.


None of those things were true.

Defense attorney Jessica Manuele explained his lawyers have noticed Jonchuck laughing at inappropriate times, something they say they have come to know as a sign he is losing touch with reality.

“We certainly have some concerns at this point,” Manuele said.

A court psychologist examined Jonchuck on Tuesday afternoon, and found him competent to continue with the trial. But his lawyers asked for the second opinion.

So while we’re waiting for that report, we talked with our colleague, Leonora LaPeter Anton, who shared some details about competency evaluations in Florida. She was a member of the team that produced “Insane. Invisible. In danger.” — an investigation into Florida’s state-funded mental hospitals that won the Pulitzer Prize. The project included reports from the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center in Gainesville, where Jonchuck received treatment.

You can read that entire 2015 series here.

For a defendant to be deemed competent in Florida, they must first meet six explicit criteria.

1. They must be able to understand the charges they face. Essentially, they must know, in legal terms, what offense they’re accused of committing. Jonchuck is charged with first-degree murder.

2. They must have command of what will happen if they are found guilty. What is the penalty if convicted? Jonchuck will face life in prison. Judge Chris Helinger reviewed this fact with him minutes before jury selection (the morning after the defense now says Jonchuck had a hallucination in jail). Jonchuck told the judge then that he understood.

3. They must understand how the legal process works. In the courtroom, they should know who each player is — the lawyers and deputies and judge — and what a plea deal means. Think of this like Courtroom Terms 101 — can they explain the basic glossary? Jonchuck’s lawyers said they have explored plea deals, but we think it’s unlikely any will happen now that the trial is underway.

4. They must be able to work with their attorneys. A defendant should be able to talk to and share facts they know about the case with their lawyers.

5. They should be able to behave in court. The accused person should be able to focus and display proper etiquette and hygiene in the courtroom. They should also realize there are punishments for misbehaving.

6. They should be able to testify. Everyone has the right to take the stand in their own defense, and though it’s extremely unlikely in this case, Jonchuck should be able to speak clearly for himself if he so chooses.

Jonchuck has a long history of mental illness and violence. He was first arrested when he was 12, and his family says he has been Baker Acted 27 times. He has been charged with domestic violence against his dad, his mom and Phoebe’s mother. And for years, he has been prescribed a complicated cocktail of psychotropic medicines.

You can read about his history in “The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck.”

After he dropped his daughter off the approach to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in January 2015, psychologists deemed Jonchuck incompetent to stand trial and sent him to the mental health treatment center.

ZACK (9:40 a.m.)

Each day of the trial, we’ve checked logs to report on Jonchuck’s activity in the Pinellas County Jail, which is adjacent to the courthouse. Nothing has popped out from those records. He is receiving medication, something Poorman confirmed in court yesterday based on her conversation with an official at the jail. He is receiving meals, too.

After court yesterday, the latest log shows, Jonchuck had dinner and was given some medication by a nurse. He received medication again early this morning. He then had breakfast.

ZACK (9:30 a.m.)

The psychologist who is expected to evaluate Jonchuck this morning, Richard Cipriano, is set to begin at 10 a.m. It’s unclear how long that will take. Court psychologist Jill Poorman was able to complete an evaluation yesterday and render her opinion that Jonchuck is competent in about half an hour.

What next?

If Cipriano finds Jonchuck is incompetent, we could be headed for a third evaluation or competency hearing. If he finds Jonchuck is competent, it’s possible the trial will continue this afternoon. Jurors are due back at 1 p.m.

After hours of continuing expert testimony, the murder trial of John Jonchuck hit a snag Tuesday.

Public defenders said Jonchuck has been hearing things since before jury selection even began. They worry he is not fit to stand trial.

The judge kept the jury out of the courtroom for hours. A court psychologist evaluated Jonchuck and came back saying she believes he is competent.

He received many months of treatment at a state facility before being found competent to stand trial the first time. Another psychologist is expected to evaluate Jonchuck early Wednesday, the future of the trial hanging in the balance.

First, catch up on Tuesday’s proceedings in our live blog.

Or read the story here.

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