LARGO — The logistics of putting John Jonchuck on trial for the 2015 murder of his 5-year-old daughter were hammered out in a courtroom on Friday.
It is one of the most infamous crimes to be tried in Pinellas County in years, with the trial set to start Sept. 24 at the Pinellas County Justice Center.
But first Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger had to address several unusual requests from the defense. The prosecution and even the Pinellas Clerk of the Circuit Court’s office also took part in Friday’s negotiations.
Jonchuck’s public defenders had filed motions related to summoning prospective jurors for the trial and the questioning of those jurors during voir dire, a process through which attorneys select jurors who will hear the case.
Jury selection will take about three days, the judge said. After that, she anticipates up to eight days of testimony before the case goes to the jury.
Then, if Jonchuck is found guilty of first-degree murder, the trial will move to the penalty phase. The jury will hear aggravating and mitigating factors before deciding to recommend that Jonchuck be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole — or be sent to Florida’s Death Row.
Jonchuck, now 28, is accused of dropping his 5-year-old daughter Phoebe off the Dick Misener Bridge, north of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, just after midnight on Jan. 8, 2015. The girl fell 60 feet to her death. The case has been delayed as doctors have worked to restore Jonchuck’s mental health. In Florida, a defendant must be mentally competent to stand trial.
The public defenders told Helinger they will need 500 prospective jurors to seat a jury, which in capital cases requires at least 12 jurors and several alternates. However, it can be difficult to seat a jury for a capital case, even more so when the case is as infamous as the Jonchuck case.
Assistant State Attorney Doug Ellis said he believes they’ll only need a pool of 150 jury candidates. Ellis said it took that many to seat a jury in another recent high-profile case: Marco Parilla, who pleaded guilty to killing Tarpon Springs police Officer Charlie Kondek in 2014.
Parilla’s lawyers decided to go straight into the penalty phase, and on March 23 the jury spared Parilla the death penalty and he instead received a life sentence.
Helinger directed Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke, who attended the hearing, to call 200 prospective jurors to the courthouse on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of trial week, with the assumption that about 100 will show up each day. If needed, they will summon another 200 jurors for Thursday. Jury summonses will go out Thursday, Burke said.
All those jurors will be earmarked for the Jonchuck case. That’s in response to a request by the defense to call fresh jurors for the trial, rather than jurors who cycle through other jury pools in the courthouse that week.
In a motion filed last week, Jonchuck’s lawyers asked for the opportunity to review the reasons prospective jurors may give for why they will be unable to serve on the jury. Helinger said the defense could have a list of those called for jury service, as well as a list of who among those jurors asked for postponements and the reasons those people gave.
"In theory if there was going to be a challenge to the entire panel, we would need to know who was excused," said Assistant Public Defender Jane McNeill.
McNeill and her team had also filed a motion last week requesting voir dire be conducted with each prospective juror individually, and video recorded. The judge said all the jurors will sit together in the courtroom during that process, as is customary, and if the lawyers need to discuss something privately with a particular juror, they would do so in front of the judge in a private bench conference.
There are still several other defense motions left to be heard, both regarding more jury selection issues and the reading of victim impact statements. Those are usually read to the court by victims at the end of the trial about the impact of the crime on their lives. But in this case the defense wants them to be read after sentencing, not before.
Those motions will be heard at an Aug. 27 hearing.
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.