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John Jonchuck, convicted of daughter Phoebe’s murder, seeks new trial

Jonchuck, who dropped his 5-year-old off a bridge, appeared in court Monday alongside his public defenders to argue he is entitled to another chance.
Attorney Greg Williams talks to John Jonchuck in court, Monday, August 26, 2019 in Pinellas County. Jonchuck's attorneys are asking for a new trial. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Aug. 26
Updated Aug. 27

LARGO — The teams of lawyers who fought for and against John Jonchuck in a month-long trial earlier this year reassembled Monday afternoon to argue over whether he is entitled to a redo.

RELATED STORY: The trial of John Jonchuck, everything you need to know about the case

Jonchuck, 29, was convicted in April of first-degree murder in the 2015 death of his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck, whom he dropped off the Dick Misener Bridge into Tampa Bay some 60 feet below. A jury rejected his lawyers’ arguments that he was insane at the time of the crime. He was sentenced to life in prison.

RELATED STORY: The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

Jonchuck, who has been in the state prison system, came back to Pinellas County for the hearing and was present in the courtroom Monday. His hair was shorter and grayer than it was months ago and he wore a red jail jumpsuit and orange jail slides. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger — the same judge who presided over the trial — let Jonchuck turn the shirt of his jumpsuit inside out to conceal the words “high risk inmate” printed on the front.

Then began public defender Jessica Manuele, running the judge through her 13-point, 31-page new trial motion. She read case law and excerpts from the trial transcript to Helinger for nearly three hours. The judge remained silent through most of the soliloquy, save for an occasional question. Audience members, bailiffs and journalists volleyed yawns back and forth.

Manuele took so long that Helinger chose to break up the hearing into two days. Defense lawyers will finish their arguments for a new trial on Tuesday, and prosecutors will have the chance to argue against.

Right- Defense attorney Jessica Manuele argues in front of Circuit Court Judge Chris Helinger for a new trial for her client John Jonchuck, far left, in court, Monday, August 26, 2019 in Pinellas County. In the center is Tyler Gross an intern from Stetson University School of Law. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

The first point of the defense’s new trial motion, and what they said was their main argument, relates to standards for evaluating expert testimony, an issue Florida has waffled on in recent years.

In 2013, the Legislature adopted what is known as the Daubert standard, which requires a judge to determine that an expert’s testimony is scientifically reliable before the evidence can go before a jury. Then in October 2018, just months before Jonchuck’s trial was scheduled, the Florida Supreme Court overruled the Legislature, adopting what’s known as the Frye standard — essentially, that any relevant expert testimony can go before a jury as long as it is not “new or novel.”

Then, in May, after three new justices joined the Supreme Court, the body switched Florida back to the Daubert standard.

RELATED STORY: Supreme Court ruling means longer wait in trial of ice cream man accused of Ruskin murders

Jonchuck was tried under Frye rules. The defense wants it retried under the Daubert rules. They said a test to evaluate someone’s psychopathic tendencies — relied on heavily by the prosecution’s expert witnesses — wouldn’t hold up under Daubert they way they used it. Therefore, Manuele argued, those experts’ testimony doesn’t meet the Daubert standard, either.

John Jonchuck listens to his attorneys in the courtroom Monday, August 26, 2019 in Pinellas County. His attorneys are asking for a new trial. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Many of the other points in the new trial motion relate to pieces of evidence and testimony Helinger let jurors hear that defense lawyers said they shouldn’t have. That includes evidence of Jonchuck’s history of misbehavior, things like him polishing stairs so his uncles would fall, forging checks and showing a pattern of poor emotional control.

RELATED STORY: John Jonchuck, convicted of daughter’s murder, asks for new trial

A man who served on the trial jury, Tim Siewak, watched the hearing from the gallery. He said he wanted to see how it ultimately plays out, after giving more than four weeks to the case. How does he feel about the defense trying to get Jonchuck a new trial?

“Personally, I don’t like it," he said. "But if it was me, I’d want them fighting for me too.”

He said after he and his 11 fellow jurors rendered the guilty verdict, he spent a week combing through video of the trial to find out what the jury wasn’t allowed to hear. He keyed in on a critical statement Jonchuck made to a paralegal in the hours before he dropped Phoebe, that “If I can’t have her, then no one else will.”

The judge called that a “killer statement," but ultimately ruled the paralegal could not say it before the jury because prosecutors didn’t properly notify the defense about it.

Siewak said if the case were to be retried, and the new jurors heard that statement, they’d have no trouble finding Jonchuck guilty again.

“He’d be done in a heartbeat," Siewak said.

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