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Judge denies John Jonchuck a new murder trial

Jonchuck was convicted of first-degree murder in April. He dropped his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck, off a bridge in 2015.
John Jonchuck returned to a Pinellas County courtroom last month to attend a hearing about whether he was entitled to a new trial. A judge on Tuesday ruled that he is not. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Sep. 17
Updated Sep. 17

LARGO — The judge who presided over John Jonchuck’s murder trial ruled Tuesday that he is not entitled to a do-over.

Jurors in April found Jonchuck, now 29, guilty of first-degree murder after a month-long trial for the 2015 killing of his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck. He dropped her off the Dick Misener Bridge near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the middle of the night in front of a St. Petersburg police officer. He received an automatic lifetime prison sentence after the verdict.

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

Jonchuck’s public defenders, who argued during the trial that Jonchuck was insane when he dropped his daughter, sought to have a redo. If jurors had found Jonchuck insane, he would have avoided prison and instead would have been funneled to a state mental health treatment center. After the verdict, his lawyers filed a motion for new trial, alleging jurors were swayed by evidence and testimony they never should have heard.

RELATED STORY: The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

The crux of their 13-point motion was related to a test called the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, or PCL-R, which evaluates someone’s psychopathic traits. Two of the prosecution’s mental health experts who testified during the trial relied on the tool in their evaluations of Jonchuck. Both found that Jonchuck had strong psychopathic tendencies and that he wasn’t insane when he dropped Phoebe. Defense lawyers argued at a hearing last month that those experts misapplied the test and their testimony never should have been admitted.

The public defenders also objected to Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger allowing testimony in front of the jury from one of those experts, psychiatrist Emily Lazarou, whose methods when evaluating Jonchuck they found troubling.

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

The new trial motion was likely bolstered by a recent Florida Supreme Court ruling that came out in May, a month after the jury rendered its verdict. The ruling changed the rules judges must use to evaluate scientific evidence and expert testimony.

The case was tried under rules known as the Frye standard, which say relevant expert testimony can go before a jury as long as it is not “new or novel.” Justices in May decided Florida must abide 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.

Since the case was still technically ongoing, both the prosecution and defense lawyers agreed that Helinger would have to weigh the public defenders’ concerns using the Daubert standard. Jonchuck’s lawyers argued last month that some of the testimony jurors heard would not be admissible under Daubert, and that the only way to “cure” that, or address those issues fairly, would be to retry the case under the new rules.

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

Helinger largely sidestepped the Daubert issue in her denial. She said defense attorneys never challenged the admissibility of the PCL-R and Lazarou’s testimony under the Frye standard, and that “a failure to request a Frye hearing forecloses the substitution of a Daubert analysis.”

Jonchuck’s lead attorney, Jessica Manuele, declined to comment. Public Defender Bob Dillinger could not be reached.

State Attorney Bernie McCabe, reached by phone Tuesday, said he hadn’t read the judge’s order, but was “happy” with the denial.

“I had seen a substantial portion of the trial, and I thought the motion should have been denied,” he said.

He said Helinger was “judicious” in her decision-making during the trial.

“She wasn’t doing anything shooting from the hip," he said. "She was being very thoughtful.”

Manuele did confirm she would be filing an appeal to the 2nd District Court of Appeal.


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