John Jonchuck’s public defenders on Friday filed a motion asking for a new trial, arguing that several decisions made by the judge during the four-week murder trial that ended with a conviction this month were improper and unfair to Jonchuck.
The motion laid out 11 reasons Jonchuck’s lawyers think he deserves a new trial, almost all related to pieces of evidence or testimony the judge either let the jury hear or didn’t.
“The strength of the motion is how many issues there are,” public defender Jessica Manuele, who drafted the motion, said in a phone interview. “Where one thing may not have warranted a new trial alone, the totality of the errors should.”
The motion will be weighed by the same judge who presided over the trial, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger, who can act upon it or set a hearing. Manuele said her team will likely file additional documents next week.
The motion is significant because it’s the first of several post-conviction moves Jonchuck’s lawyers are likely to make, and it previews the appeal lawyers likely will later file if this motion fails.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said Friday that he hadn't seen the motion and wouldn't comment on the substance. But, he dismissed the tactic as “standard operating procedure.”
“Every time we win a case, the defense lawyer will file a motion for new trial,” he said.
Jurors on April 16 found Jonchuck guilty of first-degree murder in the Jan. 8, 2015 death of his daughter, 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck, siding with prosecutors who argued Jonchuck was driven by vengeance when he dropped her off the Dick Misener Bridge. He was sentenced to life in prison.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck
They said he was angry at his mother, who abandoned Jonchuck as a little boy but returned to shower affection on Phoebe in a way she never did upon him. And, prosecutors said, Jonchuck feared losing Phoebe in a custody dispute to the girl’s mother.
Jonchuck’s lawyers argued he was legally insane, meaning he suffered from a mental illness that prevented him from knowing what he was doing when he let Phoebe go, or that it was wrong. They sought a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. If that had been the verdict, Helinger would have likely sent Jonchuck to a state treatment facility, where he could have remained for life.
Of the 11 points, the most significant, Manuele said, is that Helinger allowed testimony related to Jonchuck's history of misbehavior, including that he polished stairs so his uncles would fall, that he forged checks and that he has shown a pattern of poor emotional control.
“The defendant was prejudiced because he was not on trial for any of these crimes or wrongs,” Manuele wrote, adding later in a phone interview that testimony about Jonchuck's past became “a feature of the trial.”
Defense attorneys also took issue with the fact that Helinger allowed the prosecution's expert witnesses — psychologist Peter Bursten and psychiatrist Emily Lazarou — to testify about Jonchuck's propensity toward psychopathy. The admissibility of testimony about Jonchuck being a psychopath was hotly debated in hearings before and during the trial with the jury out of the room. While Helinger said she would not allow Bursten or Lazarou to call Jonchuck a psychopath, she did allow them to discuss the psychopathic traits Jonchuck exhibits, like lying, remorselessness and being deceitful.
Lawyers also raised concern that Helinger allowed jurors to banter with witnesses after their testimony, a move legal experts acknowledged was unusual.
Other things the defense lawyers argued were problematic included that the judge allowed jurors to see photos of Phoebe’s body collected during the autopsy and that the judge didn't issue proper instructions to the jury.
Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.