The Trial of John Jonchuck, Day 21: Guilty

The jurors deliberated for 6.5 hours before coming back with their verdict: guilty of first-degree murder.

Times Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this blog.

LANE (3:57 p.m.)

Jonchuck’s uncle, Bryan Morris, and his partner Tim Maynard, helped raise Jonchuck and wanted to adopt Phoebe. He said he wished Jonchuck had gotten the death penalty. But since that was not an option, he said he’s glad Jonchuck is going to prison for life. “He got the absolute minimum he deserves,” he said of the sentence. “He can rot in hell.”

Morris and his partner wanted to testify at the trial, and were sequestered throughout the proceedings in case they got called as witnesses. “But the judge didn’t want his character to be brought up. And we had nothing good to say about his character,” Morris said.

If they had been able to talk, he said, they would have told jurors, “I truly in my heart feel that he did that intentionally to get back at his mother and Phoebe’s mother.”

Morris said he was “amazed” that police never drug tested Jonchuck on the night he dropped his daughter off the bridge. And he was upset no one ever got all the messages and search information off Jochuck’s phone. “They would’ve seen a lot of research about how to act insane,” he said. “I do believe he had some mental illness. But I don’t believe he’s insane. There’s no better way to put it: He’s a great actor.”

Morris said he and Maynard had long “been afraid he was going to hurt someone. But I thought it would be Michelle Kerr or my sister,” he said. “I never, ever thought it would be Phoebe. He was a good father. He loved her. But he was an evil person. A very evil person.”

ZACK (3:35 p.m.)

St. Petersburg police Officer William “Drew” Vickers, who witnessed Jonchuck drop

Phoebe, declined to be interviewed about the verdict but did provide a statement. He had previously said he hoped to be the girl’s “voice at trial.”

“I am pleased with the verdict,” he said through a department spokeswoman Tuesday, “and am glad to have some closure for Phoebe and her family after four long years.”

LANE (2:51 p.m.)

Jonchuck’s mother got the news when her brother called. She said she was “kind of surprised” at the verdict, but glad the jurors ruled as they did.

“Only God knows if he did it on purpose, or if he’s just sick,” Michele Jonchuck said by phone, her voice breaking. “But if he did do that to my precious princess angel, he deserves to rot in f------ hell.”

At first, she said, she thought her son was just sick. “I hoped maybe he just needed more treatment,” she said. “Then he started playing his games again in court,” saying he was hallucinating and hearing voices. “I don’t believe that,” she said.

The verdict, she said, brings some justice to Phoebe, but doesn’t make her feel any better. “That little girl loved him very much,” she said. “I still blame myself for not taking her that night.”

She said she’d like to thank the jurors “for making the decision you did.”

In the four years since the murder, Michele Jonchuck has only seen her son a few times -- once when she went to visit him in the mental health hospital, and in court three weeks ago when she testified during his trial. “He looked terrible,” she said, referring to all the weight he’s lost.

She said she wants to see her son again before he goes to prison for the rest of his life. “I want to tell him I love him, because he’s my son,” she said through tears. “But when it comes to what he’s done, I hate him. He took my sunshine away.”

Jonchuck turns from facing Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Chris Helinger and smiles at his defense attorneys as a bailiff points to the finger print area of the courtroom after the verdict was read aloud. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
JOSH (2:42 p.m.)

The Sixth Circuit Public Defender’s Office is not commenting on the verdict. But Craig Whisenhunt, a former public defender turned private attorney who consulted on the case, said afterward that as the verdict was read, Jonchuck’s mind was with his lawyers, public defenders Jessica Manuele and Jane McNeill. The trio embraced in the courtroom.

“John told his attorneys to take care of each other and expressed his concern for them.”

The defense is likely to appeal the case.

Jonchuck hugs attorney Jessica Manuele after being found guilt of first-degree murder. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
SCOTT KEELER | Times Left to Right: Defense attorneys Jane McNeill and Jessica Manuele react to the guilty verdict for their client John Jonchuck, Tuesday, April 16, 2019 in Pinellas County.
LANE (2:21 p.m.)

Deputies led the jurors out a side door of the courthouse and to the parking garage. One by one, they waved off a reporter, rolled up their windows and drove away.

JOSH (2:18 p.m.)

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe watched on a live stream as the clerk read the verdict aloud.

“And I am satisfied that justice was done,” he said by phone immediately after the announcement. “My immediate reaction is killing children doesn’t make one a very sympathetic character.”

He said the time jurors deliberated, almost seven hours, suggests they took their job seriously.

Was he happy with the outcome?

“I don't know that I get happy or unhappy at verdicts,” he said. “I’m satisfied that the verdict represents justice in this case.”

Jonchuck’s defense team did not comment on their way out of the courtroom. Public Defender Bob Dillinger could not be immediately reached.

ZACK, LANE AND JOSH (2:14 p.m.)

No one from the Jonchuck family was here when the verdict was read. No relatives or friends spoke on behalf of Phoebe before sentencing, or for Jonchuck himself. The sentence was automatic: life in prison. Prosecutors had taken the death penalty off the table last year.

LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (2:02 p.m.)

The judge calls Jonchuck and his lawyers to stand before her. Manuele asks to postpone sentencing for a week, because they have some issues to discuss. The judge wants to know why. The defense does not give a reason.

Helinger continues. “Mr. Jonchuck, it’s an automatic life sentence. I will adjudicate you guilty of murder in the first degree. I will sentence you to life in prison.”

He says slowly, “Yes, your honor.”

Prosecutors Doug Ellis and Paul Bolan walk out.

The deputy leads Jonchuck to get his fingerprints taken, pressing his right fingers, then his left, onto a pad of black ink. The public defenders watch.

A deputy leads Jonchuck out of the courtroom. The door closes behind him.

Jonchuck leaves the courtroom after being found guilty of first-degree murder. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Defendant John Jonchuck turns as a bailiff points to the area of the courtroom where there is a fingerprint station. He was found guilty of first-degree murder moments before. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

The judge thanks the jury for their work. She reminds them no jurors can be forced to talk about any of the deliberations, except by a court.

“There’s no way I can express my appreciation for your service,” Helinger says. “I’ve never had a trial this long and I’ve been here about 12 years as a judge.”

Public Defender Jane McNeill pats Manuele’s back.

Manuele wipes her eyes.

Two jurors in the back row take a long look at Jonchuck before exiting the courtroom.

LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (1:58 p.m.)

Jonchuck turns to the jurors, his face flat, listening as the clerk polls the jurors. They all say yes, this is their veridct.

Public defender Jessica Manuele hugs Jonchuck with both arms. He pats her back. She rubs his. They sit, her stroking his shoulder, and whisper. He hugs her again, and seems to set his jaw.

ZACK, JOSH AND LANE (1:56 p.m.)

Jonchuck is guilty of first-degree murder.

LANE, JOSH AND ZACK (1:48 p.m.)

The lawyers have returned to their tables. The jury deliberated for about 6.5 hours. Jonchuck comes back into the courtroom, hands at his sides, and takes his seat. He wears a blue dress shirt and dark tie. He whispers with public defender Jessica Manuele, and smiles. The jurors are not back yet. Five deputies stand around the edges of the courtroom. One is directly behind Jonchuck.

“All rise.”

Judge Chris Helinger comes back to the bench.

“Let’s bring them in,” the judge says.

JOSH, ZACK AND LANE (1:41 p.m.)

After 6.5 hours, deputies just brought boxes of evidence back into the courtroom. We saw on a television screen in the media room. We’re told a verdict is coming.

ZACK (1 p.m.)

We’ve reached six hours of deliberations. If you haven’t already, or want to reacquaint yourself with this story, read Lane’s piece, “The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck."

JOSH, ZACK AND LANE (11:50 a.m.)

While we’re waiting for a verdict, we went back to analyze some of the key moments of this trial. At times, the testimony felt repetitive, but here’s our rundown of the parts that seemed to rise above. These points could be crucial to the jury’s decision.

But there were also several people from whom the jurors did not hear, and facts that were not mentioned in front of them. It may seem surprising, for instance, that Phoebe’s mother, Michelle Kerr, has never appeared. We broke down all that we know but the jury does not.

ZACK (9:12 a.m.)

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen,” Helinger says as the jurors take their seats.

She asks if anyone received any information about the case outside court.

“No, your honor,” they say collectively.

She sends them back out to try to reach a verdict.

Once again, we wait.

Defendant John Jonchuck smiles in court Tuesday morning. SCOTT KEELER | Times
ZACK (9:05 a.m.)

A deputy just led Jonchuck into the courtroom. He’s wearing a blue dress shirt and darker tie. He and Judge Chris Helinger exchange good mornings before he sits down, smiles and chats with public defenders Jessica Manuele and and Jane McNeill.

The lawyers in the Jonchuck trial are at their tables, but Helinger is handling other cases on her calendar right now.

ZACK (8:45 a.m.)

As we prepare for the jury to return this morning, we reviewed Jonchuck’s latest jail log. All seems typical. He received a meal and medication.

Prosecutor Doug Ellis points to a photograph of Phoebe Jonchuck during closing arguments in her father's murder trial Monday. SCOTT KEELER | Times

The jury is in control of the John Jonchuck murder trial now.

Lawyers for both sides finished closing arguments Monday afternoon, putting a point on three weeks of testimony.

Prosecutors says Jonchuck killed his daughter, Phoebe, out of spite, trying to keep her from her mother and grandmother. They contend he had time to think about the crime, and should be convicted of first-degree, premeditated murder.

Public defenders argue there’s no way to know why Jonchuck killed his 5-year-old. They say he was driven by delusions, and the jurors can’t try to apply reason to an irrational act. Jonchuck, they contend, should be found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Judge Chris Helinger, after the jury left to begin deliberating, said: “This is the most interesting trial I’ve ever had. Probably ever will.”

It’s not over yet.



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