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John Jonchuck arrives in Pinellas County ahead of next week's murder trial

John Jonchuck, 29, arrived at the Pinellas County jail on Wednesday ahead of first-degree murder trial next week. He’s accused of dropping his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, off a bridge in 2015.  [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
John Jonchuck, 29, arrived at the Pinellas County jail on Wednesday ahead of first-degree murder trial next week. He’s accused of dropping his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, off a bridge in 2015. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Mar. 13, 2019

LARGO — John Jonchuck arrived in Pinellas County on Wednesday ahead of his murder trial next week.

Jonchuck, 29, had been housed at the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center outside Gainesville, where he was undergoing treatment to improve his mental health until he was ready to stand trial. With the trial scheduled to begin Monday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger ordered Jonchuck transferred to the Pinellas County jail, where he will remain for the duration of the trial. He was booked into the jail at 12:15 p.m.

Jonchuck faces charges of first-degree murder, assault and fleeing police. He's accused of dropping his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, off a bridge in the early hours of Jan. 8, 2015. Rescuers pulled her body from the waters of Tampa Bay later that morning.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: The long fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

For years, he was incompetent to stand trial, meaning Jonchuck, who had studied to be a paralegal, was in such poor mental health that he wasn't able to understand the charges he faced or the trial process. He was declared competent in 2017, though countless delays stacked up in court and the trial date was repeatedly pushed back — including once last fall when Helinger agreed to delay the trial just 10 days before it was scheduled to start.

This time, Jonchuck's arrival in the county signifies the closest the case has ever gotten to trial. It could still get delayed. His lawyers have already raised concerns to Helinger about Jonchuck's mental state due to an alteration in his medication schedule. Any degradation in Jonchuck's mental health could delay the trial again.

According to his legal team, Jonchuck relies on a once-monthly injection of psychotropic medication to remain mentally competent for trial. But doctors at the state hospital delayed his latest dose by about a week, until Monday, in order to deliver it as close as possible to the beginning of the trial, which could take four weeks. Jonchuck's lawyers said state doctors were skeptical the medical staff at the jail would administer a shot to Jonchuck in the middle of the trial.

The last time Jonchuck was brought back to the Pinellas County jail, in 2016 for a court hearing, he refused a psychiatrist's visit, tried to grab a guard and would not take all of his medications, according to records from the Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail.

The Sheriff's Office said if an inmate arrived from a state hospital on a medication regimen, jail medical staff would continue to provide the same medication. Medical staff would not force medication upon an inmate who refused it.

Jonchuck's lawyers plan to argue that the jury should find him not guilty by reason of insanity, meaning he didn't know what he was doing or understand the consequences of his actions. If they're successful, Jonchuck will spend years, and likely the rest of his life, in a state mental hospital

If Jonchuck is ultimately convicted of the first-degree murder charge, he will automatically be handed a lifetime prison sentence.

Jonchuck's arrival on Wednesday means he'll be able to attend a Thursday morning court hearing, where lawyers will discuss two defense motions. The first motion is to prevent the term "psychopath" from making it into the trial, because it has the "strong likelihood to unduly prejudice the jury" against Jonchuck, his lawyers wrote. The second motion is to prevent testimony related to hypothermia as a contributing cause of Phoebe's death.

Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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