Will John Jonchuck get a new trial? We’ll know within a month

Jonchuck was convicted in April of dropping his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, off a bridge. Now his lawyers want a new trial. A judge will rule by Oct. 1.
John Jonchuck listens as hit attorneys ask for a new trial on Monday.
John Jonchuck listens as hit attorneys ask for a new trial on Monday. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Aug. 27, 2019|Updated Aug. 28, 2019

LARGO — The Florida Supreme Court put the John Jonchuck case, and specifically the judge who presided over the trial, in an bind.

RELATED STORY: The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

Had the high court’s ruling to change the admissibility standard of expert testimony come by March, the monthlong trial could have commenced under the new rules. Had the Supreme Court’s decision come later, applying the standard to the evidence in the Jonchuck case would be an issue for the appellate court.

But because it came in May, after the verdict but before Jonchuck’s defense attorneys filed their appeal, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger is left to wrestle with it.

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

Jonchuck, 29, was found guilty in April of first-degree murder in the death of his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck, whom he dropped off the Dick Misener Bridge. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Attorney Greg Williams talks to John Jonchuck in court on Monday.
Attorney Greg Williams talks to John Jonchuck in court on Monday. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Expert witnesses were a critical component of the four-week trial. The defense relied on mental health professionals in their bid to convince jurors that Jonchuck was insane at the time of the crime. The prosecution used their own mental health professionals to argue Jonchuck was not insane when he dropped Phoebe.

RELATED STORY: The trial of John Jonchuck comes down to one question: Evil or insane?

The Supreme Court ruling switches how judges evaluate evidence and testimony from expert witnesses. The trial occurred under Frye rules, which state that relevant expert testimony can go before a jury as long as it is not “new or novel.” Now the state goes by 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.

Jonchuck’s lawyers made the rule change a central issue in their motion for a new trial. Public defender Jessica Manuele argued that the methods of the prosecutions’ expert witnesses — and therefore testimony they offered based on those methods — do not meet the Daubert standard.

RELATED STORY: The trial of John Jonchuck: Daily live blog and everything you need to know about the case

In particular, Manuele targeted a test used to determine someone’s psychopathic tendencies, called the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, or PCL-R. Both the prosecution’s experts administered the test on Jonchuck and testified to the jury about the results.

She also took issue with unflattering details of Jonchuck’s character and past that made it before the jury.

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The length of Manuele’s argument came up multiple times Tuesday. She spoke for three hours on Monday, and another two the next morning. At around the 90 minute mark on Tuesday, Helinger implored her to wrap it up.

Defense attorney Jessica Manuele, right, argues on Monday for a new trial for her John Jonchuck, far left.
Defense attorney Jessica Manuele, right, argues on Monday for a new trial for her John Jonchuck, far left. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

“We all know the foundation (for appeal) you are trying to build if I deny the motion for a new trial," Helinger said. "And I understand that. But there has to be an end point.”

Manuele concluded that the only way to “cure” the problems she raised, or address them fairly, is to retry the case under the new rules.

RELATED STORY: Was it wrong to let jurors talk to witnesses in the Jonchuck trial?

The prosecution then argued — more succinctly — against a new trial. Assistant State Attorney Doug Ellis said Daubert works great for things like tire track analysis. In other words, “hard science."

“It doesn’t apply well to soft science" like psychology, he said.

Ellis’ partner, prosecutor Paul Bolan, argued the evidence they presented to the jury was necessary to make their case that Jonchuck had more sinister motives for killing Phoebe than being insane.

“It’s not character evidence," Bolan said, regarding the evidence Manuele objected to. "It’s our rebuttal to their argument of insanity.”

Ellis concluded by reminding Helinger her decision on the new trial motion will likely be appealed no matter which way she rules.

“I gave you plenty of legal reasons not to grant a new trial," he said. "This case should be decided by the appellate court. This court has done its job.”

Helinger said she will make a written ruling by Oct. 1.