JOSH (5:45 p.m.)
The judge called it for the night, and the lawyers have their homework to do. Thanks for keeping up today. Court begins tomorrow at 9:30 a.m., when we expect to hear more arguments on the discovery issue surrounding Malcolm’s testimony.
ZACK AND JOSH (5:39 p.m.)
Helinger is frustrated.
“It has nothing to do with the fact they didn’t know it,” she says to the prosecution. “Everybody knows everybody knew it… But they didn’t know you were going to use it.”
Helinger is now going over the phone calls, saying a few could be beneficial to the defense. But that one phone call — “If I can’t have her, nobody can” — that’s something that wasn’t part of the trial.
“That’s all new, that’s extremely prejudicial. I don’t know how else to describe it,” the judge says.
“That’s bad for their case,” she continues. “I don’t know what to do.”
Ellis asks for time to research tonight. Helinger says yes they can have that.
“I think it’s a problem” the judge says.
ZACK AND JOSH (5:27 p.m.)
The lawyers approach for a bench conference. All we can hear are murmurs. Clearly tensions are elevated. Then Helinger says: “There’s no reason to do this at the bench.”
McNeill then cites a previous case for the court. Lawyers at both tables are hurriedly researching for case law to help their sides.
Helinger scans the case, reading aloud: “An oral statement by the defendant to the police where the content of the statement had not been provided to defense counsel.”
Manuele is saying the state violated discovery rules, and the defense is suggesting this is enough of a problem that the verdict could be reversed on appeal.
Helinger asks Manuele why they can’t deal with the prejudice of Malcolm’s testimony during the defense’s surrebuttal -- a fancy word for the rebuttal to the rebuttal.
“How are you really prejudiced?” the judge says.
Manuele cites another case to explain the defense’s view. She says all of their experts have given lengthy testimony and been cross-examined and were never asked about the statements that prosecutors are now trying to introduce.
Helinger says she believes they can all agree that Ellis and Bolan didn’t follow the letter of the rules but she doesn’t believe it was an intentional violation. The judge says she doesn’t believe prosecutors knew the rule.
“I didn’t know the rule,” Helinger says.
“I am not finding that it was an intentional violation. Knowing who their opposing counsel were, if they were aware of the rule, they would have provided it to you. There'd be no reason not to, because they would end up in this situation.”
“I think this evidence is material, for sure.” She thinks the evidence goes both ways. The judge rattles off elements of Malcolm’s testimony that she feels benefits the defense, like incessant phone calls and the fact that he didn’t know he was Phoebe’s father.
“And the rest of it, not so good” for the defense, she says.
“Explain to me how things would have been different if the state had complied with the rule and you had knew they were going to use the statements that this witness has just testified to,” Helinger says.
“At this point we don’t know,” Manuele replies. She asks, what if we presented these to our experts and it changes what they say? She says the defense had seen nothing to suggest these statements would come in.
“This is an inadvertent mistake of what could be argued monumental significance to the defense,” Helinger says, looking at the prosecution. “Would you agree with me on that?”
“If they don’t know you’re going to use it because you didn’t provide them with a summary, then so what? Why address it” with their experts?
Ellis says the defense could address the problem during its surrebuttal. But Helinger points out — what if one of their experts now sees these statements and no longer thinks Jonchuck should be not guilty by reason of insanity.
The judge again has her head in her hands.
JOSH AND ZACK (5:18 p.m.)
We’re in the middle of a technical legal dispute right now about whether Malcolm will be allowed to testify in front of the jury.
Jonchuck’s lead counsel, Jessica Manuele, is now arguing that admitting Malcolm’s testimony would be against the rules of evidence. Manuele said defense lawyers were not notified that prosecutors were going to be calling Malcolm, and that she would be testifying about statements Jonchuck made the day before he dropped Phoebe.
If we understand Manuele correctly, the rules of evidence say that prosecutors must alert the defense if they plan to introduce statements made by the defendant. Plus, Manuele says, now that the defense has rested its case, it cannot go back and have its experts testify about the statements Malcolm may make about her interaction with Jonchuck.
One of those statements from Malcolm -- her recollection of Jonchuck saying, “If I can’t have her, no one else will.” — is clearly damning for the defense.
“There is no way to fix this prejudice now,” Manuele argues.
Prosecutor Doug Ellis argues that he and his colleague, Paul Bolan, did not have access to Malcolm until the middle of the trial, and they notified defense lawyers that she would testify, before the defense had rested its case.
The judge says she doesn’t believe the prosecutors were intentionally deceptive, though she said it was technically a violation in the discovery process.
Bolan and Ellis pace around the prosecution table. Manuele stands up to talk then sits down, over and over. Helinger puts her head in her hand.
Malcolm is still sitting on the witness stand, swiveling slightly in her chair.
Helinger offers to let her go. “I’m already in this,” she says. Malcolm seems interested in the argument, as a paralegal. Someone from the defense’s side pipes up: “Continuing legal education.”
LANE AND JOSH (4:52 p.m.)
Malcolm says she spoke to defense attorney Greg Williams two weeks ago, along with some other lawyers, for about 45 minutes. She doesn’t remember who all was on the speaker phone. An expert was on the line as well, but I don’t remember the name.
She talked to the prosecutors by phone on Monday. She called both offices to see if she was going to be needed to testify during the trial.
As soon as Jonchuck left their office, Torres broke down and Malcolm called 911, then transferred the call to the lawyer. As soon as he left, Malcolm says she ran outside and grabbed his license plate, knowing something was wrong. While on the phone with 911, Torres routed deputies to St. Paul Catholic Church. Later deputies called to say they had met with Jonchuck at the church but that he didn’t meet the criteria for a Baker Act.
Torres kept begging, Malcolm tells Williams! Torres and Malcolm felt they should maybe get out of the office, as Jonchuck knew they were the ones who called 911 on him. So they took a 90-minute lunch before returning to work.
After Jonchuck called the office in the early afternoon, Malcolm and Torres called DCF about 2:30. Jonchuck kept calling, so she took notes on when he called and what she remembered from each call. She still has the notes, no lawyers have asked to see them.
I love children, Malcolm says, so said hello to Phoebe and asked if she wanted to stay with her while Jonchuck and Torres met. “There are certain things you just won’t forget,” Malcolm says. “That’s stuck with me since that day.”
ZACK, LANE AND JOSH (4: 35 p.m.)
Helinger dismisses the jurors, saying they need to hold a small hearing and that will be all for testimony today. The defense asks to waive Jonchuck’s presence “so he can get some rest.”
The judge asks Jonchuck if that’s what he’d prefer. “Yes, your honor,” he says. He walks out slowly, hanging his head.
We’re again into a proffer, where the lawyers will go over evidence with Malcolm, without the jury, so Helinger can determine what’s fit for open court.
Ellis begins asking Malcolm about a phone call she answered at the office from Jonchuck.
Malcolm describes a series of erratic phone calls Jonchuck made to the office after leaving that morning.
He called the office about 1:11 p.m. on Jan. 7, saying he’s related to the pope and was very excited. He was still at St. Paul’s Catholic Church. Twenty minutes later, he called again, saying he didn’t believe Phoebe was his daughter -- he thought Phoebe’s mother had an affair with his father, and could he get a DNA test. She told him of course they could do that. An hour later, he called again. He was very down, explaining that he didn’t know what to do any more. He wanted to protect her from this craziness. He said, “If I can’t have her, no one else will.”
Malcolm said she tried to calm Jonchuck down. He asked her if she would call the Department of Children and Families, but he was the one who brought up DCF. He didn’t know what to do, she recalls, he kept repeating himself. They were very short calls, he’d talk for a few minutes then hang up.
He called seven times in an hour and a half. The last time, Malcolm says, he said to forget the DNA test, as he knew Phoebe was his, and that everything is going to be okay now. Everything is going to be okay tomorrow.
The calls stopped after that and I left the office, Malcolm says.
LANE AND ZACK (4:24 p.m.)
Malcolm was at Torres’ office when Jonchuck brought Phoebe to see the lawyer on the day before she died. “I do the initial intake,” she says. And she notarized some documents in his case.
Initially, Jonchuck took Phoebe upstairs to the lawyer’s office. Then Genevieve asked Malcolm to bring Phoebe downstairs. “She drew pictures, asked my name,” Malcolm says. “He was probably in our office maybe 30 minutes. He came down the stairs, Genevieve came down halfway. He said it’s time to go, let’s go, let’s go. And Phoebe didn’t move. She just froze and just looked at me. So he bent down and grabbed all the crayons and the papers and shuffled everything and just threw it in the bin, and she just stood there, just staring at me. ... He grabbed her by the arm to yank her, let’s go ... it was very rushed.”
He later made seven phone calls to their law office that afternoon.
Lane says: When we interviewed Malcolm months after Phoebe was murdered, she cried. The picture Phoebe had drawn with crayons that day in her office, of a house with a tall roof, was still hanging by her desk. Jonchuck had asked his lawyer if he could leave Phoebe with her while he went to a church, but the lawyer refused. She later said she so regretted not just keeping the girl with her. Torres’ daughter was about the same age as Phoebe.
Torres testified last week, which you can read about here.
JOSH AND ZACK (4:11 p.m.)
Court resumes with news the defense has rested its insanity case. The prosecution calls its first rebuttal witness, Kyrsten Malcolm, 23, former paralegal to family attorney Genevieve Torres, whom Jonchuck was trying to hire to represent him in his custody dispute over Phoebe.
JOSH AND ZACK (4:02 p.m.)
The slow pace here is because the defense introduced another piece of evidence, a packet of paper, that they gave jurors to look at. They have been passing it around, each taking several minutes with it. Unclear what it is, though there was previously some discussion about an injunction.
JOSH (3:00 p.m.)
After the jurors finished asking questions, and the lawyers finished asking follow-up questions, Maher is excused. It sounds like the defense may have one or two more witnesses before they rest their insanity case.
The judge calls a recess until 3:15 p.m.
JOSH AND LANE (2:49 p.m.)
One juror has tried several times to ask a question to Maher, and at least twice Judge Helinger has asked him to write it down. He presses on, trying to talk directly to Maher, until the judge cuts him off for fear he was going to ask a question that could prejudice the jury.
It’s “dangerous if you become a lawyer,” the judge says.
Now he’s writing the question down. The judge reads it aloud: Is it possible that you can pre-conceive a murder in your sane mind, but then be psychotic when you do it? Yes, says Maher.
LANE (2:48 p.m.)
After Ellis finishes cross-examining the psychiatrist, jurors send a stack of yellow slips of paper with their questions to the judge:
Does John have multiple personalities disorder? No, says the psychiatrist.
Can a person who suffers from Mr. Jonchuck’s psychotic condition still kill his daughter without experiencing the episode at the exact time of the event? “I don’t think this is a question that modern medicine can answer,” says Maher.
Possession? Exorcism? Religious belief or delusion? “It’s very important to respect that very intense, strong religious beliefs can look like false beliefs, like delusions. But in this case, I’m very confident that the Swedish Bible knocking are psychotic breaks, not religious beliefs,” says Maher.
Did any of the drugs Jonchuck was using cause hallucinations or flashbacks? “No. These are not drugs that have any reasonable medical possibility of causing flashback hallucinations that would have occurred significantly after the drug use.” But if he was taking pills he wasn’t prescribed, a juror persists, who would you know what they might cause? If he wasn’t impaired at the time of the incident, that probably wouldn’t matter, Maher answered.
This is confusing. No one ever drug tested Jonchuck. So how could they know he wasn’t on drugs or impaired that night on the bridge? Other people who have smoked spice beat a family with baseball bats, strangled and ate a spaniel and screamed that they were being chased by demons. Jonchuck’s friends said he also smoked so much meth that his fingers were charred from holding the small glass pipe.
LANE AND JOSH (2:07 p.m.)
On cross-examination, prosecutor Doug Ellis immediately seeks to cast doubt on Maher’s conclusions. Ellis asks if anyone recorded Maher’s interviews with Jonchuck. No one did. No lawyers were present during those talks either. And Maher didn’t interview any collateral witnesses. “It’s my belief that the best and most reliable information is the information I obtained,” says the psychiatrist.
“You didn’t do any testing, pen and paper, correct?” asks the prosecutor. Correct.
Ellis then moves on to the bridge. Maher wrote in his report that Jonchuck believed Phoebe could fly away because she was an angel, according to Ellis. But in Maher’s deposition, he relayed that Jonchuck had said, “I don’t know.”
Maher stands his ground: “That is exactly the kind of inconsistent thought behavior that I have referred to regarding his psychosis.”
On the bridge, Maher says, Jonchuck was hearing voices. But the psychiatrist didn’t say that during his deposition, the prosecution says. Ellis asks Maher to look through his deposition to refresh his memory.
Ellis is trying to get Maher tied up in knots. His questions to the psychiatrist are sharp and direct. He’s trying to poke holes in Maher’s credibility by illuminating for the jury differences in his testimony during the deposition and today on the witness stand. At times, Ellis’ voice seems flat and matter-of-fact, other times he ramps up the amount of confrontation in his voice. It appears Maher is trying not to get defensive, but is clearly frustrated by some of the questions Ellis is asking.
The pair tussle over semantics of a particular question, and Ellis finally says he’ll move on. Ellis’ performance seems to be reducing to a degree the effectiveness of Maher’s testimony for the defense.
Ellis asks about the impact of drug use on Jonchuck’s mind. Maher says Jonchuck’s mind was significantly altered by chronic substance abuse, primarily alcohol and marijuana. He took pills at times that hadn’t been prescribed to him and he took some other drugs, including spice, but not for at least weeks before this event.
Jonchuck’s psychotic episode began at least several days before the event, Maher says. It got worse in the two or three days before this incident. “He was concerned about Phoebe’s well being all the time. His intense fear was relatively short term, hours before the incident.”
Ellis asks if Jonchuck told Maher he was on “the first bridge” when he dropped Phoebe. Yes. “So he certainly had an awareness of where he was,” Ellis says.
At the defense table, Jonchuck keeps leaning in to talk to his lawyer, Manuele. He’s smiling a lot this afternoon, nodding every once in a while.
Do you believe the defendant was manipulative? asks Ellis. The defense objects, but the judge overrules. “All human beings can be manipulative,” says the psychiatrist.
During our reporting, Jonchuck’s friends and family said he had been manipulative since middle school. He loved drawing attention to himself, he schemed his friends and family. He took advantage of people, moving into their homes, trashing their furniture. He wrote bad checks, stole money from his mother, and filed countless lawsuits, including a “slip and fall” case at the Cheesecake Factory which was dismissed shortly before he killed Phoebe.
He called false reports into the Department of Children and Families about Phoebe’s kindergarten teacher, mother and her boyfriend. Then, sometimes, he would apologize afterwards. Some of the women he lived with said he was using Phoebe as his meal ticket: No one wanted the girl to be homeless or hungry, so they put up with her difficult dad. In Phoebe’s five years on this earth, Jonchuck bounced her between at least a dozen homes.
JOSH (1:45 p.m.)
Maher seemed a very effective witness for the defense. He attributed Phoebe’s death and the act of fleeing police to Jonchuck’s mental state. He said it wouldn’t be unusual for someone in a psychotic episode to do habitual things like buckle a seat belt — that it wasn’t an indication Jonchuck was only concerned with his own safety after he dropped Phoebe. Perhaps most importantly for the defense: he specifically said Jonchuck wouldn’t have known what he did when he did it, and that he wouldn’t have known what he did was wrong.
LANE AND JOSH (1:43 p.m.)
McNeill then asks if Jonchuck was having anxiety over Phoebe’s custody in the days before he killed her.
Yes, Maher says. The psychiatrist discusses some emails he reviewed that indicate Jonchuck was in a peculiar state of mind when he met with his custody lawyer, Genevieve Torres. The emails suggested that Jonchuck was impaired in a way that he wasn’t aware of, and perceived Phoebe was threatened in the care of her mother, Maher says.
“The threat isn’t entirely irrational, illogical,” Maher says. “The problem was he didn’t have the ability to separate the realistic concerns with the psychotic ones.”.
Maher distinguished Jonchuck’s psychotic belief that he and others were God from anything religious. Same with the knocking Swedish Bible. He went to a priest to get answers, but that didn’t work because it’s not done in a realistic way. “It’s a psychotic manifestation,” Maher says.
Jonchuck was intensely obsessed with his step-mother’s century-old Swedish Bible, Maher says. Of course, he couldn’t read it. But from our reporting, we know that he had been preoccupied by it for days before Phoebe’s death. He carried it with him to see his lawyer and demanded that she read it to him. The huge, leather-bound Bible was in his white PT Cruiser the night he dropped Phoebe off the bridge.
While he thought demons were coming to get him and Phoebe, he thought Phoebe was an angel. “And he could protect her and ensure that she would be safe and okay,” Maher said. “A desperate thought of a desperate, psychotic parent who desperately wanted to protect his child. … The distortion is that somehow dropping her off the bridge would bring a good thing about.”
He goes on: “Some crazy irrational distorted idea in his head compelled him to drop his daughter over the bridge,” Maher says. “It didn’t matter if there was a police officer there or not.”
At one point, Jonchuck made reference to throwing her. Another time, he said he dropped her, Maher says. Later, Jonchuck said he threw Phoebe upwards, so she could fly like an angel. But Maher doesn’t think Jonchuck was really considering that possibility on the bridge that night. “I think the only thing that was in his head was that he had to do this so she would be safe.”
Phoebe was in her carseat in the backseat of Jonchuck’s car that night, and he had buckled her into her seatbelt. That was a habitual action, Maher says. He had his own seatbelt on, too, when the officers finally stopped him, broke his driver’s side window, and dragged him out of his car. Prosecutors mentioned in their opening statement that Jonchuck buckled in after dropping Phoebe off the bridge.
Maher says the fact that Jonchuck drove from police toward Sarasota after the bridge is not an indication he knew what he did was wrong.
“He was desperate to get away from the danger,” Maher says. “He thought running away would somehow accomplish that.”
“He gets in his car and drives away because he’s not connected to reality,” the psychiatrist says. “He just has to go, get away, escape. It’an not thought out. It’s compelled, automatic and irrational.”
McNeill asks why Jonchuck didn’t jump off the bridge with Phoebe that night, since he thought he had to die with her to save the world. “If he dies and isn’t in control, he won’t be there to protect Phoebe,” says the psychiatrist.
McNeill wraps up, and seeks to summarize for the jury the point of the testimony: Do you believe at the time that John released Phoebe over the bridge that he was suffering from a severe mental break? Yes, says Maher. “I don’t believe he understood the nature of it, or the wrongfulness of it.” Did he understand the difference between life and death? “Not in any realistic sense.”
LANE (1:14 p.m.)
We’re back from lunch, and defense lawyer Jane McNeill picks up where she left off with defense expert witness psychiatrist Michael Maher.
Before lunch, McNeill says, Maher discussed how Jonchuck’s brain illness affected his ability to understand the wrongfulness of his actions.
“If you turn the clock back to the day before this tragedy,” Maher says, “there’s a great deal of evidence that this father loved this child. Regardless of what we might believe about what occurred here, he did loved his child.Given that, he’s deeply emotionally engaged in what is happening here in court and that level of emotional intensity and engagement, and the grief he experienced as a father, makes it more difficult to ... put the psychosis aside and be in touch with reality.
“He’s conflicted,” Maher goes on. “He has opposite feelings about what happened, like any parent who has concern and interest and behaves in the best interest of their child, he feels a sense of responsibility because a terrible thing happened. He feels tormented by that.”
Jonchuck thought he was hearing other people’s thoughts. “Thought insertion,” the psychiatrist calls it. “He doesn’t want this, but it’s in his head.” Some of the people in his life weren’t real, he thought, they weren’t who they seemed to be, Maher says. They were influenced or overcome by the devil. “They were imposters.”
Almost always there’s some feeling that some action needs to be taken in response to these thoughts and hallucinations, says Maher. “Most people who have this psychotic experience have a feeling they must do something about it.” Sometimes it’s follow the voices, sometimes it’s challenge or rail against them.
“Even in his psychotic state, he maintained some abilities. He could drive a car, probably not safely. He could walk. He could talk. In some respects, he could think and remember things. He had a long-standing concern about who was taking care of Phoebe and if she was safe. If she was safe in her mother’s home. The context of his thoughts was taking care of Phoebe, of making sure nothing bad happened to her. He has this irrational state of mind that he must do anything necessary to protect her,” Maher says.
ZACK, JOSH AND LANE (12:02 p.m.)
Some context for this testimony to read over lunch:
Several of the mental health experts in the Jonchuck trial are familiar in Tampa Bay courts.
Maher testified in 2014 in another high-profile murder case, that of Julie Schenecker, who shot and killed her two children. In that case, he similarly said he believed Schenecker was insane. You can read about his testimony in that trial here.
Randy Otto, the USF psychologist we heard from yesterday, also was involved in the Schenecker case, but he contended she was not insane at the time of the killing.
Maher and Otto also had differing opinions in 2012 regarding the competency of a woman accused of killing lottery winner Abraham Shakespeare.
They agree, though, in their assessments that Jonchuck was insane when he killed Phoebe.
Scot Machlus, the first psychologist for the defense, has been quoted in past Times articles, too. He was involved in 2010 in the case of Tawnya Jo Hines, a woman he said was intellectually disabled who wrapped a newborn baby in a towel and put the child in a cabinet, where she died. Machlus said Hines understood the charges against her despite being in denial about the killing.
Peter Bursten, a psychologist who will testify for the prosecution and who has been sitting in the gallery during recent days of testimony, also was involved in the Hines case. He said she was not intellectually disabled.
Bursten also evaluated a Hernando teen who stabbed his mother’s boyfriend to death, saying the boy had a mental illness that made him feel inadequate.
We’ve written extensively about the prosecution’s other expert, psychiatrist Emily Lazarou, and her involvement in previous cases.
This all is not very surprising. Forensic psychology and psychiatry are specialized fields, and there are only so many people in the area who do this work. These witnesses already have been in court and been deemed qualified to perform evaluations in major criminal cases.
Prosecutors and public defenders also get acquainted with certain experts and lean on them for evaluations. That’s especially important for prosecutors, who by the rules of evidence need to turn over exculpatory information. That means if they bring in an expert who has a finding contrary to their case, they must turn over that evidence to the defense.
The Schenecker case, in particular, has clear overlap with some of the details of the Jonchuck trial, and it perhaps should not be surprising to see crossover experts.
The doctors often chat with each other while they wait just outside the courtroom to testify.
Read our previous coverage of the case below:
And if you want to support this kind of coverage in the future, you can subscribe to the Tampa Bay Times here.
ZACK (12 p.m.)
That last bit from Maher was probably the clearest distillation we’ve had yet of the defense’s case. He spoke directly to the criteria for a not guilty by reason of insanity defense in Florida. Jonchuck, he said, was unaware of the difference between life and death, and thus the reality of how wrong it was to kill his daughter.
Of course, prosecutors will still have a chance to cross-examine him. But jurors go to lunch with that last exchange in their heads.
LANE AND JOSH (11:55 a.m.)
McNeil asks the psychiatrist if he formed an opinion about Jonchuck’s mental state on the night he dropped Phoebe from the bridge.
“Given the standards in Florida and his condition, it is my opinion that he meets the criteria for insanity,” Maher says. “He was not aware in any criminal way of the nature and consequences of his actions.”
Jonchuck leans toward his lawyer, whispers in her ear, and smiles.
McNeill then asks if Jonchuck, on the night he dropped Phoebe off the bridge, had a “rational understanding of the difference between life and death?”
“His basic understanding of life and death were distorted by his delusions,” Maher says, “by a sense the demons and the devil were connected to him, that the fate of the whole world was dependent on his and Phoebe’s death, that things were out of his control.”
How did the hallucinations or hearing voices play into what happened that night?
“It’s my conclusion that on that night John was suffering from delusions, hallucinations, psychosis,” the psychiatrist says. “Sometimes (psychosis) has the quality that one feels he must act on it. He must do something about it … the voices were pushing him in the direction he had to do something definitive.”
Demons and evil were present and engaged and affecting him and Phoebe and the world, Maher says.
“They were even a little more than real, because when a person is psychotic they’re not able to ask if it’s real. You can’t ask that question in a reasonable way.” So Jonchuck acted on his hallucination. “I think the ultimate tragedy of him dropping Phoebe over the bridge is a horrific example of that. I think he got in his car that night in a psychotic state. He was running away from something he wasn’t really even aware he was running aware of … “
The doctor continues: “It is my conclusion that he loved Phoebe. Was he a good father all the time? No. Did he make some mistakes and do some bad things before this happened? Yes. But he cared for his daughter. He loved his daughter. That means he will grieve the loss of his daughter. On top of his brain illness and pre-existing mental illness, he is suffering from the guilt … “
Prosecutors object. Everyone gathers at the bench. The judge breaks until 1 p.m for lunch.
ZACK, JOSH AND LANE (11:48 a.m.)
Maher says he asked Jonchuck about the night Phoebe died.
Jonchuck, the doctor says, explained that he could not remember everything. When he began to speak about the night he dropped his daughter, Maher says, Jonchuck’s sentence structure broke down. He described the incident in fragmented phrases.
“He said he remembered the police, he remembered the bridge, he remembered Phoebe being in her car seat and undoing the car seat,” Maher testifies.
Jonchuck, he says, “became confused and somewhat disoriented” as he related these details.
He remembered dropping Phoebe.
“He remembered feeling that this somehow would make her safe,” Maher says.
The doctor continues, explaining how Jonchuck remembered trying to talk to the police and being afraid.
“He remembered the Bible, something about the Bible,” Maher says, but at this point in their conversation the doctor recalls Jonchuck switched to present tense and described how the Swedish Bible had an importance or power in his life.
“This is an indication of continuing psychosis,” Maher says.
LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (11:38 a.m.)
“Arriving at a diagnosis is a complicated process,” Maher says. “And it’s a little bit of a moving target.” A differential diagnosis is a long list of all the possible diagnoses, and all the contributing factors, then you narrow it down to a short list of the most probable diagnoses.
McNeil asks if Maher agrees with the other expert witnesses, psychologists called to testify. “I agree with all of those doctors that there’s a serious mental illness,” he says. “I think if you put us all in a room for four hours we’d discuss a lot of little differences in details. But all of those professionals are in agreement that there is severe mental illness.”
McNeill then asks Maher to explain personality disorders.
Personality disorders are characterized as exaggerated personality characteristics which interfere with the person interacting in their life in normal circumstances. It’s not a mental illness. It’s more of a normal condition which is exaggerated and causes problems with people’s lives.
“They have an exaggerated and relentless tendency to be dependent upon others” and blame others, Maher says.
Sometimes the characteristics of a personality disorder can manifest because of illness. Like someone with Down syndrome might be overly dependent on others and behave inappropriately. That doesn’t mean that person has a personality disorder.
McNeill holds up the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Maher explains that the book directs doctors to not diagnose a personality disorder if the characteristics of a personality disorder can be attributed to an underlying illness.
“Those problems in (Jonchuck’s) personality development, problems that are related to personality disorders, come from the underlying mental illness,” Maher says.
Maher is looking at the jurors as he speaks, and gesturing with his hands, which seems to be helping him keep their attention even as some of the responses drag into long-winded territory. He’s specific, and detailed. That especially helped when he broke down Jonchuck’s current medication regimen, which he was able to explain in relatively simple terms.
McNeill asks if Maher believes Jonchuck ever developed into a self-sufficient adult.
“No,” the doctor replies. “I believe there are a few times that he seemed to function adequately for several months in a row” but not that he was self-sufficient.
Maher lists several potential reasons.
“He had mental illness from childhood, likely from earlier in childhood, possibly from birth, his mother may have used drugs or alcohol during her pregnancy. He grew up with these problems, They were not effectively dealt with. This was not an environment that would have compensated for other problems with his pre-natal development or childhood development. He had the risk factors," the psychiatrist says. “He didn’t have the protective factors.”
LANE, ZACK AND JOSH (11:23 a.m.)
John faced barriers to treatment that were related to his disruption of care with Dr. Arthur, Maher says. “He lost his health insurance.”
“It is unfortunately very common for people to turn to alcohol, marijuana and other more problematic drugs to deal with sleep disorders and other psychiatric illnesses. People seek ineffective and sometimes harmful medications and illicit drugs to relieve their symptoms.”
McNeil asks about the medications that Dr. Arthur had prescribed for Jonchuck. One is a very powerful sedative, another is an anti-psychotic medication used to treat depression. Another is used to treat attention disorders, and one -- Ambien -- is specifically for sleep disorders.
More recently, Jonchuck is taking Haldol, a “powerful anti-psychotic medication,” both orally and in an injection, Maher explains. The fact that Jonchuck gets Haldol two ways indicates “the difficulty in getting these symptoms under control,” the doctor says.
LANE (11:15 a.m.)
Brain illness can be treated, Maher says. But it can’t be cured. “We can manage it. Some people can be restored to normal, functional lives. But it tends to run a long-term course.”
“Can John’s brain be fixed?” asks his lawyer.
“It cannot be fixed,” says the psychiatrist.
Jonchuck leans forward and closes his eyes.
LANE AND JOSH (11:12 a.m.)
Maher continues talking about ideas of reference, which often have a “disproportionately powerful impact” on individuals. “In this case, the Swedish Bible that John had and the sounds he believed were coming from it would represent an idea of reference,” he says.
Just because a person is psychotic doesn’t mean they’re unaware of their environment. They often don’t disclose their thoughts because they don’t want to be embarrassed, the psychiatrist says. “People who are mentally ill, have brain illness, or are psychotic retain an understanding and a sensitivity to how they would be seen by the people around them. And they don’t want to be seen negatively. They don’t want to be seen as out of touch, so they want to keep it to themselves,” Maher says.
Some psychoses make it hard to sleep, and lack of sleep makes the psychosis worse, says the psychiatrist. People get into a cycle that keeps feeding itself.
“His condition is one of chronic psychosis. It’s very difficult to say when that began, certainly years before he was arrested, and these tragic events began. My best understanding … is that it’s very hard to identify periods of his life in the last five years when he wasn’t at least a little bit disturbed. There are times he seemed to have functioned reasonably well. However there have often been repeated episodes of severe episodes of psychosis.”
Several jurors scratch notes on their pads as Maher says this.
“These are difficult things to understand,” says the psychiatrist. “One of the analogies clinical patients have used to describe their experience is a nightmare, a nightmare you can’t wake up from. Some of it is quite organized, and moves logically to the next part. Some aspects are completely disconnected, the way dreams can sometimes be. A person feels they’re in one place, then another, and something happens. In a nightmare there’s fear, anxiety. … Imagine that going on for days and days, some things feel connected, some are disconnected.”
McNeill asked if Maher believed Jonchuck was on drugs the night he dropped Phoebe from the bridge.
“I didn’t see any indication that was under the influence of either prescription or nonprescription drugs,” Maher says. He called looking for evidence of drug use “a critical part of the assessment.”
On Dec. 29, 2014, a week before Phoebe died, Jonchuck went to St. Joseph’s Hospital, worrying he was having a heart attack. “The emergency room doctor’s conclusion was that this was an anxiety episode,” Maher says.
Doctors didn’t drug test Jonchuck during that episode, either.
“It’s a high priority in an emergency room, particularly if somebody presents with irritability, agitation, that kind of thing, they don’t hesitate to do drug testing,” Maher says. “So perhaps that they didn’t do any drug testing would be an indication they didn’t see any irritability.”
ZACK (10:57 a.m.)
While we’re on break, not much different going on in Jonchuck’s latest jail log. He showered yesterday and is still receiving his meals and his medication. Officials exchanged his linens and gave him a razor so he could shave for court.
Yesterday morning, the log notes, lawyers were at the jail to meet with Jonchuck. That was for a competency evaluation, which you can read about here.
LANE (10:44 a.m.)
Jonchuck suffers from a chronic disorder which is severe and progressive, Maher says. He has schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, bipolar disorder with psychotic episodes, and a seizure disorder. “Those all overlap and are often indistinct, especially in complicated cases,” says the psychiatrist.
Different experts have different diagnoses, because the patient might present with different signs or findings, Maher says. And diagnoses can change over time.
Maher says he knows Dr. Arthur, who used to treat Jonchuck at USF, and has reviewed his treatment records. Dr. Arthur was treating Jonchuck for bipolar disorder and giving him anti-psychotic medications. Over time, the psychiatrist says, medications often have to change.
McNeill is running through her points with Maher. The discussion turns next to psychosis and hallucinations.
Psychotic break “refers to the idea that psychosis is a condition where there is a break from common sense reality. Psychosis by itself is a symptom, not a disease,” Maher says. “It might be a symptom of an underlying psychiatric disorder, it might be a symptom of something else.”
It’s not just hallucinations or delusions, Maher says. “An individual who is psychotic is out of touch with reality. They can be related to sound, visions, touch … They’re false perceptions that seem to be real, they often say they’re hearing voices, and those voices will be a clear, usually short phrase that the patient relates to and it feels like a real, external voice, and it’s powerful. Tactile hallucinations are very hard” for patients to deal with, Maher said, because they feel like something is on their skin but when they look, there’s nothing there. “Different hallucinations can involve different senses.”
Delusions are the idea that the CIA is looking at me from that clock up there -- a crazy idea about something that’s happening in this world that really can’t be happening. A common delusion is people are after me, people are spying on me, Maher says. Sometimes delusions are hard to distinguish from exaggerated beliefs. It has to be clearly disconnected from reality.
Other aspects of delusion can be related to confusion, a disorder of thinking, says the psychiatrist. That is a symptom of psychosis. Thought disorders are confused ideas that often combine with normal, every day confusion.
People who are psychotic are almost always distressed, anxious, unhappy, Maher says.
A person’s ability to understand what really happened might impair their ability to create memories, says the psychiatrist. “In mental illness and brain illness circumstances, our ability to encode and remember things is distorted,” Maher says. “Psychotic illnesses almost always have periods where they’re less problematic and periods when they’re more problematic.The psychosis never completely goes away.” Stress, changes in environment, medications can exacerbate psychotic episodes, he says.
Ideas of reference refer to the situation where a person who is not thinking clearly, a person who is psychotic, gets the idea in their head that a message has very unique, special meaning to them and their circumstances. You believe it’s especially related to you in a powerful way, Maher says.
The judge calls for a break until 10:55.
LANE (10:29 a.m.)
Maher first met Jonchuck in July 2017, at the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center outside Gainesville. He spent about three hours with him. Last month, Maher talked to Jonchuck again at the Pinellas County Jail just before jury selection began. “I’ve billed a lot of hours in this case, many hours reviewing documents and considering information,” Maher says.
McNeill asks him to describe his meetings with Jonchuck. “First and foremost,” the doctor says, “I want to make sure the person I’m talking to understands why Im there. I introduced myself, he said he was anticipating that I’d be there to talk to him.”
“I asked if he was comfortable talking to me in the surroundings we were in. He said he was a little uncomfortable, there were people watching us through glass, and that made him nervous. But we continued. I asked him a lot of very open-ended questions about his life, background, circumstances and ultimately about the charges against him.”
“Since we can’t read minds,” Maher continues, “and we can’t see into someone’s mind, we ask questions and observe and make theories about what it is they’re thinking about and how their thought processes are working. One thing we look for is evidence of hallucinations.”
Maher explains the difference between psychiatrists and psychologists. Psychiatrists have to go through medical school where they take all the same classes as physicians, and obtain a licence and go through three years of speciality training. A psychologist goes to graduate school and learns about psychological processes. Their training and approach are different, he says. Psychiatrists likely have a better understanding of the brain, while psychologists focus on the mind, he says.
“It’s especially important to know the limitations of our knowledge,” Maher says.
Maher talks slowly and evenly, facing the jury as he speaks. He has not looked at Jonchuck. The psychiatrist does not stutter and keeps his testimony free of “ums;” he appears very comfortable on the stand. While Maher does gesture, he doesn’t talk with his hands nearly as much as psychologist Randy Otto did on the witness stand yesterday.
The conversation pivots to intelligence. “Intelligence is a complicated and sometimes confusing issue. When we talk about intelligence, usually we’re talking about something that comes down to classroom, academic knowledge,” says the psychiatrist. Jonchuck’s fundamental, underlying intelligence is in the normal range, he says. “But because of his mental health and his background, his ability to use his intelligence in a reliable way is significantly impaired.”
Jonchuck also had seizures. And “he certainly does suffer from a mental illness, I’d characterize that as a brain illness, but he certainly has both.” There’s not a clear line between a brain illness and a mental illness,” Maher says. “There are also aspects of dysfunction in John’s life which I would characterize as mental illness that aren’t related to the underlying brain illness.”
ZACK AND LANE (10:09 a.m.)
Dr. Michael Maher is the next witness for the defense. He is their last expert. After Maher, the public defenders will wrap their case.
Maher wears glasses, a gray suit and colorful tie. His microphone is off initially and it’s hard to hear him as he explains he’s a psychiatrist who graduated from New College in Sarasota before University of South Florida to get his MD.
He’s worked at USF for 30 years and had a private practice since 1983.
Maher says he’s a certified forensic psychiatrist.
Jonchuck is looking straight down at the defense table. He slowly lifts his head up but does not seem to be watching Maher much. He occasionally glances in the direction of public defender Jane McNeill, who is leading the questioning, or the jury, which is over her left shoulder.
Maher explains the forensic part of his practice involves evaluating people for competency in criminal courts or children who are involved in dependency cases (which are meant to determine whether they should stay in a home). He evaluates the parents, and sometimes the child.
Maher has been in court “many times” in the last five years, mostly in dependency court.
Though Florida’s Department of Children and Families had investigated Jonchuck, and been called to check on Phoebe several times, no one ever evaluated Jonchuck’s mental state during all those years before he killed his daughter.
The defense hired Maher to evaluate Jonchuck in May 2017, more than two years after Phoebe’s death. The public defender’s office is paying him $250 an hour to be part of this case. Describing his process, Maher says he typically talks to the attorneys first and asks why mental health input would be important in their case. Then he asks for police reports before he sees the defendant and looks at them again afterwards.
Maher says this case is especially complicated.”There’s long-standing mental illness, a complicated family history related to John and his daughter and his mother, a complicated history related to his family of origin, a history of mental health treatment, prescribed medications, conflict within the family,” he says. All those factors “make this case more complicated than most.”
LANE (9:46 a.m.)
The next witness is Jim Jones, who is a registered nurse and administrative nursing supervisor with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and works at the Pinellas County Jail.
Defense attorney Jane McNeill asks Jones about what happens when an inmate is brought into the jail. A nurse asks about drug use, alcohol consumption, medications, injuries, whether the inmate is suicidal, if he’s ever been Baker Acted. It’s not standard procedure to drug test male inmates as they’re being booked, Jones says.
“If their condition is compromised, or we can’t handle them at the jail, we call 911 and send them off to the ER,” Jones says.
The jail nursing supervisor says he reviewed a subpoena to drug test Jonchuck, which gave a seven-day window … But he says Jonchuck was never drug tested.
A juror waves a yellow note with a question: Is Mr. Jones a nurse? Yes.
JOSH, ZACK AND LANE (9:43 a.m.)
After the jury comes in, the judge explains to those jurors who remain why the one man was dismissed. She says no one knows how it happened that he got a summons.
Jonchuck sits as usual, mouth open looking forward from the defense table. He slumps forward slightly in his chair. He wears a light blue shirt and dark blue patterned tie.
The defense’s first witness of the morning is Assistant Public Defender Paige Parish, a colleague of Jonchuck’s defense team. She was the court appointed public defender who represented Jonchuck during his first appearance in court. She’s been at the office for 10 years.
A first appearance is a defendant’s first court hearing in front of a judge within 24 hours of arrest, Parish explains. The lawyers, who are in a courtroom with a judge during first appearance, are not physically along side the defendants, who are held in the jail and appear by video call. Parish was called to introduce the video of Jonchuck’s first appearance.
Jurors, with notepads on their laps, look up to the screen to watch the video.
You are John Jonchuck? Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Michael Andrews asked Jonchuck in the video.
“That’s the name that I was given,” Jonchuck replied with his hands cuffed behind his back. He was wearing a blue jail jumpsuit.
“Do you have the wherewithal to hire an attorney sir?” the judge asked. “Would you like me to appoint an attorney to represent you?”
After a long pause, Jonchuck said “No... I want to leave it in the hands of God.”
One juror takes a note. Several others lean forward.
“Pretty sure God’s not going to be representing you in this case,” Andrews asked Jonchuck, drawing a chuckle from a juror. “You’re going to be standing trial. Would you like someone standing next to you while you stand trial?”
Jonchuck said he doesn’t want a court appointed attorney, requesting instead for a “good and pure” attorney.
“I’ll do my best to give a good and pure attorney,” Andrews said.
Once the video is over, Parish is excused. On to the next witness.
ZACK AND JOSH (9:15 a.m.)
Before the jurors are brought into the courtroom, the judge asks the lawyers what they want to do about the juror who doesn’t actually live in Pinellas County anymore. You might remember the other day she said the man lives in Trinity, in Pasco County, and moved there in December. She said she could find no real good answer for why he got a summons.
The defense lawyers are conferencing on that now. Prosecutor Doug Ellis has said it’s not a constitutional issue.
When the defense lawyers don’t speak up, Judge Chris Helinger, clearly eager to get started, says everyone can talk about it later.
Prosecutor Paul Bolan then argues the defense should provide a transcript of Jonchuck’s first appearance, not the video.
“The video is not the official record in the advisory hearing,” he says.
He says that for years, there has been an administrative order that the audio of first appearances is not evidence. The video the defense hopes to show, being a YouTube video, “is one step removed from that,” Bolan says.
Also, this violates their own motion to exclude Jonchuck’s statements after he asks for a lawyer in the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. Bolan says that to allow the video in is unfair.
Helinger, though, disagrees with Bolan, and will allow the video to be shown.
Public defender Greg Williams stands up and says the defense does not think there’s anything to do with the non-Pinellas juror other than let him go and replace him with an alternate.
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” Ellis says, but prosecution will not oppose.
The man is brought in. He’s bearded and wears sunglasses around his neck, holding a coffee cup in his hand. Helinger asks him how he’s doing; he says fantastic.
She then says he needs to be let go because of the address issue. She tells him she heard him say he was from Trinity during jury selection but thought maybe part of the area was in Pinellas County. “It’s Pasco,” he says.
“How did you get your summons?” Helinger asks.
“In the mail,” he says.
“I think you’re a fabulous juror,” Helinger says, explaining she’s watched him take notes. But this could become an appellate issue if Jonchuck is convicted.
“You can now read about it and talk about it,” the judge says.
“That’s great,” the juror says. “And now I can talk to my wife.”
As the juror walks out, Helinger says “I wish I could give you a gift card or something.”
ZACK (9:05 a.m.)
Hello again from Courtroom 2. We should be starting soon. The day will begin with defense attorneys presenting a video of Jonchuck’s first appearance in court after he was arrested. That’s when he told a judge he did not want a lawyer but wanted to leave his case “in the hands of God.”
“I’m pretty sure God is not going to be representing you in this case,” the judge said then.
Public defenders representing John Jonchuck plan to call a final expert witness, a doctor, who is expected to testify today that Jonchuck was insane when he dropped his daughter off a bridge in 2015.
After psychiatrist Michael Maher’s testimony, the defense will likely wrap its case. They have conceded in their arguments that Jonchuck killed 5-year-old Phoebe but have leaned on mental health specialists who evaluated the now 29-year-old and determined that he did not know what he was doing that night was wrong.
The prosecution, which last week laid out the facts of the case over several days of testimony, mostly from law enforcement officers, will then get a chance to rebut the defense’s insanity claim. They are expected to bring two other mental health experts to the stand, who have said Jonchuck was not insane when he killed Phoebe.
The trial was delayed for 24 hours from Tuesday to Wednesday afternoon after the defense reported Jonchuck has been hearing and seeing things that aren’t real since the trial began. Two psychologists then evaluated Jonchuck and said he was competent to continue the trial. The judge ruled the case could proceed.
Read our previous coverage of the case below: