Advertisement
  1. News

Murder trial delayed once again for John Jonchuck, father accused of throwing 5-year-old daughter off bridge

John Jonchuck, now 28, faces a charge of first-degree murder. Authorities say he dropped his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge, killing her in 2015. A judge on Monday delayed the long-awaited murder trial. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
John Jonchuck, now 28, faces a charge of first-degree murder. Authorities say he dropped his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge, killing her in 2015. A judge on Monday delayed the long-awaited murder trial. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
Published Sep. 17, 2018

CLEARWATER — A late fight over a crucial witness forced a judge Monday to once again delay the murder trial of John Jonchuck — accused of throwing his daughter off a bridge in 2015 — just one week before jury selection was set to begin.

The decision followed a contentious hearing, in which Pinellas-Pasco Judge Chris Helinger sighed repeatedly and bemoaned the slow pace of justice.

"This case is never going to end," she said. "There has to be an ending."

RELATED: THE LONG FALL OF PHOEBE JONCHUCK

RELATED: As Jonchuck nears trial, defense takes novel approach

Helinger will hold another hearing Sept. 24, the Monday that jury selection was supposed to start, when she could set a new trial date. The defense plans to argue that Jonchuck, 28, is not guilty by reason of insanity. He has been receiving treatment at a state mental hospital.

The latest snag was touched off by public defenders seeking to exclude a key state witness, forensic psychiatrist Emily Lazarou. The doctor was set to testify that Jonchuck was not legally insane at the time authorities said he threw his daughter, 5-year-old Phoebe, off the Dick Misener Bridge.

In its motion, the defense team quoted a report from Lazarou as saying Jonchuck "is a psychopath who stands to gain something (his life or his freedom) from lying."

The lawyers, however, said they would use another psychiatrist, Ryan Wagoner from the University of South Florida, to testify that Lazarou did not adhere to professional standards when she interviewed Jonchuck. They said Wagoner "describes the evaluation generally as being very biased and coercive in nature."

Public defenders filed the motion Monday, court records show, and prosecutors said that left little time for them to depose Wagoner and find an expert to rebut his perspective.

Pacing around the courtroom, Assistant State Attorney Doug Ellis asked for a continuance and accused Jonchuck's lawyers of attempting to derail the case.

"That seems to be the goal, to make sure the state is unprepared for trial," Ellis said. He added: "In my 33 years, I've never seen such a motion run."

Ellis filed a motion of his own Monday to exclude Wagoner and two other late defense witnesses from the case. He wrote that the defense did not even include Wagoner's address or phone number when it put him on a witness list last week, calling the method "not the professional way."

One of Jonchuck's lawyers, Jessica Manuele, said her team was forced into the late filing because the deposition of Lazarou happened late, on Aug. 30. She said the defense reached out to Wagoner on Aug. 31 and he replied to them Sept. 12. In their motion, the public defenders said they were given Lazarou's forensic report about Jonchuck on July 13.

"We're working 24 hours a day just like they are to be prepared," Manuele said.

Helinger admonished the defense before agreeing to continue the trial, saying the late motion was handled "very poorly." She tried to brainstorm a series of alternatives in open court, asking if anyone had other ideas, before deciding to delay.

Bernie McCabe, the longtime state attorney in the Pinellas-Pasco circuit, said his prosecutors were "backed into a corner."

"I hope everybody realizes why it's being continued," he said. "It's because the defense is using dilatory tactics to try to get it continued."

He added that Lazarou — one of two doctors the state plans to use to show Jonchuck was not insane when he dropped his daughter into Tampa Bay — has "been on the case a long time."

"You know the old saying, justice delayed is justice denied," McCabe said. "But sometimes some folks in the system prefer delay."

Bob Dillinger, the public defender for Pinellas-Pasco, said his lawyers were not trying to slow the case down.

"If they remove the doctor, we were ready for trial," he said. "We don't want an incompetent doctor rendering an opinion about our client."

He said the timing of Lazarou's deposition caused the late motion. "We did it as timely as possible," Dillinger said. "They didn't get their witness deposed until the end of August."

The Pinellas Clerk of Court's office called 120 extra people to jury duty next Monday in anticipation of the Jonchuck trial. Clerk Ken Burke said those jurors will be told they do not need to show up when they confirm their summons the day before.

The Jonchuck case has captivated the Tampa Bay area since residents awoke Jan. 8, 2015, and learned that the young father was accused of tossing his daughter 62 feet into the water on a cold, windy night. A St. Petersburg police officer witnessed the incident, authorities said. A search and rescue crew soon found Phoebe's body, and investigators arrested Jonchuck after he fled south over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Jonchuck was initially deemed incompetent to stand trial, until January 2017.

Former Pinellas prosecutor Bill Loughery said the latest delay is not surprising.

"Cases like this, that have a lot of moving parts," he said, "it's not unusual to have numerous continuances."

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.