LARGO — The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office announced Monday it will not seek the death penalty against John Jonchuck in the brutal 2015 killing of his daughter.
"The state has elected to waive the death penalty in this case," Assistant State Attorney Doug Ellis told Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger at a pretrial motions hearing.
It was an unexpected turn, as prosecutors had previously indicated they would seek the death penalty against Jonchuck, who authorities said dropped his 5-year-old daughter Phoebe off the Dick Misener Bridge, north of the Sunshine Skyway, just after midnight on Jan. 8, 2015. Ellis would not elaborate on the reversal.
"Both the state attorney and the defense worked extremely hard in this case over many, many months thoroughly investigating the complicated issues involved and in my opinion, the right result was reached," Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said in an email.
If Jonchuck is found guilty of first-degree murder, he will automatically be sentenced to life in prison without parole. A trial is set for Sept. 24.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, who was not involved in the decision to waive the death penalty bid, said doing so can simplify prosecution.
"It dispenses with a lot of the formalities with many of the motions that would have to be litigated as well as a lot of the obstacles you encounter when doing jury selection," Bartlett said. "So it kind of lets you present a more orderly trial and you can focus on the issue at hand."
The decision to drop the death penalty bid will likely expedite the jury selection process. Jurors in capital cases go through an additional layer of questioning to make sure they are willing to recommend the death penalty. Those questions will no longer come into play.
That makes Monday’s announcement a victory for the defense, said Largo criminal defense attorney John Trevena. Juries picked for death penalty cases tend to be more conservative, he said. Now the jury will likely include fewer hard-liners, which will increase the defense’s chances of acquittal.
Experienced capital defense attorney Bjorn Brunvand said the change in law requiring that juries unanimously recommend the death penalty, as well as some recent high-profile cases where prosecutors failed to win death sentences, could be weighing on prosecutors’ minds. Brunvand pointed to the local cases of Adam Matos and Marco Parilla — Matos was convicted of murdering four people in Pasco County, and Parilla was convicted of killing a Tarpon Springs police officer — both of whom received life in prison.
He also said it could be more difficult to get a jury to unanimously sentence a father to death. Though, he said, maybe a jury would view the crime as being more egregious, since it was the father.
"Also guessing that there are some very valid mental health mitigators, and they probably analyzed it and they decided they were very unlikely to prevail," Brunvand said.
Both lawyers said the decision to drop the death penalty was unlikely to foreshadow a coming plea deal. Jonchuck wouldn’t be likely to plead guilty to first-degree murder if the only available sentence is life in prison, they said. And the state is unlikely to let Jonchuck plead to a reduced sentence.
"Factually, it’s a difficult case for the state, I think, to agree to anything other than a life sentence," Brunvand said.
Helinger on Monday also heard several motions filed by Jonchuck’s public defenders. She granted the defense access to Jonchuck’s cell phone, which was held as evidence by the St. Petersburg Police Department, court records say. And she denied a motion to record jury selection on video.
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.