1. Pinellas

After three long weeks, testimony over in John Jonchuck murder trial

Defendant John Jonchuck smiles and waves goodbye to his lawyers as he leaves the courtroom, Friday. (SCOTT KEELER   |   Times)
Defendant John Jonchuck smiles and waves goodbye to his lawyers as he leaves the courtroom, Friday. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published Apr. 12, 2019

LARGO — Testimony concluded Friday in the murder trial of John Jonchuck as both sides wrapped up their rebuttal arguments. Jurors are now left with competing explanations of what drove Jonchuck to kill his daughter.

Over most of this week, through repeatedly interrupted testimony, the prosecution tried to prove that Jonchuck, now 29, was not insane, and knew what he was doing was wrong when he dropped 5-year-old Phoebe off a bridge on a cold January night in 2015.

Day 19: Testimony ends, closing arguments set for Monday

Timeline and who's who

The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

The prosecution called two experts, psychologist Peter Bursten and psychiatrist Emily Lazarou, to rebut the defense's case. Jonchuck's public defenders frequently tried to exclude portions of the mental health specialists' testimony, including the word "psychopath," which Lazarou used to describe Jonchuck.

Bursten went over the same timeline leading to Phoebe's death as the defense's three experts, but he often adopted a different interpretation of the events. Where others who identified insanity saw delusions or hallucinations, Bursten sometimes saw awareness of reality.

When Jonchuck was atop the Dick Misener Bridge that night, Bursten recalled, he told a police officer: "You have no free will. I do." The psychologist explained the statement was open to interpretation, "but at the very least he knew what he was doing."

"He was telling the police officer, 'I'm going to do what I'm going to do. You can't stop me,' " Bursten said.

Lazarou, meanwhile, diverged even from Bursten — and drew a fervid challenge from the defense. Unlike all the other experts who testified, she said she does not believe Jonchuck has a mental illness, but instead thinks he's malingering, or faking his symptoms.

She said Jonchuck described a delusion that made him think he and Phoebe needed to die. If he really believed that, the psychiatrist said, why didn't he jump off the bridge, too? She also said that Jonchuck, who described hearing voices and thinking he was God, was inconsistent with details.

"The delusions people most follow are delusions of God, or some big being like that," Lazarou said. "But when I asked John about the delusions at that time, he couldn't tell me who that was. He could not tell me male or female. So that was another thing that went against him."

Pinellas defense attorney Jay Hebert, who is not involved but has followed the trial, said the state obviously "felt that it was important to get two doctors that were consistent about (Jonchuck) being sane at the time of the offense." But that meant accepting their own experts had different findings.

Those discrepancies, Hebert said, could affect how the jury values the experts' testimony.

After Lazarou testified for the prosecution, defense lawyers got to call more witnesses. They brought forth a counselor from the mental health treatment center where Jonchuck was housed when Lazarou interviewed him.

That counselor, Heather Davis, said she heard Lazarou comment that she did not need to evaluate Jonchuck to know he wasn't insane, even before she met with him.

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"I was kind of shocked," Davis said on the stand.

Lazarou denied saying that.

The defense also called back one of their experts, psychiatrist Michael Maher, who thinks Jonchuck was insane and who disputed Lazarou's assessment.

Lazarou had said before she met Jonchuck, she was able to rule out that he had bipolar disorder because the stimulants he took as a child to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder would have caused him to fly into a manic state.

"Would it be proper to rule out an adult diagnosis of bipolar disorder based on the fact that someone had been prescribed a stimulant, like Adderall, in the past?" public defender Jane McNeill asked Maher.

No, the psychiatrist said. "There just isn't that kind of correlation present."

The defense then asked if Maher thought Jonchuck was faking symptoms of mental illness.

"I see no indication from the record whatsoever that malingering was part of this picture, with regard to John," he said.

Could someone malinger for four years, McNeill asked, which is the amount of time Jonchuck was in the state treatment facility?

Maher answered, "In my opinion that would be absolutely unheard of."

After he left the stand, testimony in the case — which lasted three long weeks — was over. On Monday, each side will make its final argument to the jury.

Hebert said he expects the defense to try to drive a wedge between Bursten and Lazarou. The prosecutors? They'll return to the bridge, and to Phoebe.

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at Follow @ZackSampson. Contact Josh Solomon at @ByJoshSolomon. Contact Lane DeGregory at Follow @LaneDeGregory.


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