LARGO — In a surprisingly brief hearing on Thursday, a judge found John Jonchuck mentally incompetent to stand trial in connection with the murder of his 5-year-old daughter, who was dropped from a 62-foot-high bridge into Tampa Bay on Jan. 8.
The ruling means Jonchuck will be sent to a prison mental facility to receive treatment until he becomes capable of understanding the first-degree murder charge against him.
It does not mean he will escape prosecution.
Two mental health experts have evaluated Jonchuck and concluded he is mentally incompetent. Prosecutors at Thursday's hearing did not dispute those findings, so there was nothing to debate.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger then found Jonchuck mentally incompetent, based on the experts' findings. Assistant State Attorney Paul Bolan said that experts have predicted that, with treatment, Jonchuck can become competent within six to nine months.
Previous courts have ruled that defendants who are mentally ill cannot make rational decisions regarding their legal defense, such as whether they should plead guilty or go to trial or whether they should testify. And they can't have a fair trial without understanding those concepts.
So during Jonchuck's mental treatment, he will be schooled in some of the basics of the legal system, and receive medication and therapy as needed.
If he is declared mentally competent, the case against him can pick up where it left off.
Questions about Jonchuck's sanity were raised even before Phoebe Jonchuck's horrifying death, and it's likely that his mental health will be debated as long as he comes before the court system.
Calls were received by the Department of Children and Families abuse hotline on Dec. 29 and Jan. 7, the day before Phoebe's death, with concerns about Jonchuck and his daughter, but they were not pursued — which later led the department to acknowledge mistakes, change procedures and suspend one worker. Also on Jan. 7, a lawyer called 911 saying Jonchuck had shown up at her office making delusional statements, causing her to fear for Phoebe's safety. Deputies interviewed Jonchuck and concluded he did not require involuntary hospitalization.
But on Jan. 8, a St. Petersburg police officer spotted Jonchuck speeding toward the Dick Misener Bridge near the Sunshine Skyway and tried to pull him over. Police say that's when Jonchuck stopped the car, dragged Phoebe out and dropped her over the side. Jonchuck sped away but was captured after a chase, police say.
Thursday's court ruling is a separate issue from whether Jonchuck should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. It's too early in the legal process to make such an argument, and no lawyers have done so yet.
Contact Curtis Krueger at [email protected] or (727) 892-8232. Follow @ckruegertimes.