LARGO — After a 24-hour delay, the murder trial of John Jonchuck was saved from derailment Wednesday when a psychologist testified that Jonchuck was competent to continue standing trial.
It was the second time since the proceedings were halted Tuesday afternoon that a mental health professional had made that finding. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger ruled the trial would go forward, and defense lawyers picked up with the questioning of one of their expert witnesses, forensic psychologist and University of South Florida professor Randy Otto.
The trial’s completion was thrown into jeopardy Tuesday afternoon when Jonchuck’s public defenders told the judge they had concerns he was hallucinating. Jonchuck dropped his daughter, Phoebe, off a bridge in 2015 and is facing a first-degree murder charge after years of treatment following an initial finding that he was incompetent to stand trial.
Helinger first ordered an evaluation by a court psychologist, Jill Poorman, who within 30 minutes delivered her finding that Jonchuck was competent.
Defense attorneys then asked for a second evaluation, and the judge appointed Tampa psychologist Richard Cipriano, whose evaluation took place Wednesday morning at the Pinellas County Jail.
Cipriano delivered his report to the judge midday. Jonchuck knew why he was arrested, the psychologist said, what he was being charged with and the roles of everyone in court.
He described the judge as a referee and said the role of the prosecutor is to get a conviction, according to Cipriano.
“I asked him to describe the definition for the terms not guilty,” Cipriano said. “He told me it was no conviction. Guilty meant the person did it. No contest, you throw yourself at the mercy of the court. And it’s usually accepted as a guilty plea. Not guilty by reason of insanity, you didn't know right from wrong.”
In order for defendants to be found competent, they need to meet six criteria: They must understand what they are charged with, what punishment they face if they are convicted, how the legal process works, how to work with their attorneys, how to behave in court and must be able to testify should they choose to.
Despite the defense’s worries over Jonchuck hearing and seeing things, Cipriano determined that Jonchuck met all six criteria, and Helinger immediately said Jonchuck was fit to move forward.
If the psychologist had found that Jonchuck was incompetent, lawyers could have asked for a third evaluation. Helinger could have also opted to hold a competency hearing. If she found Jonchuck incompetent, that could have been grounds for a mistrial.
With the competency questions answered, for now, assistant public defender Jessica Manuele resumed her direct examination of Otto, the expert witness. He read the jury two emails written by Jonchuck, one from August 2014 and one from January 2015, the latter only days before he killed Phoebe. The August email was well-written and punctuated. But by January, Jonchuck had stopped using punctuation and his thoughts seemed to jump all over the place. The difference was stark.
One juror asked Otto if the lack of punctuation could be from Jonchuck using talk-to-text. Otto agreed that's a possibility.
During cross-examination, Otto said he believes Jonchuck knew dropping Phoebe off the bridge would kill her. However, the psychologist said he does not think the killing was premeditated. He referenced Jonchuck’s erratic behavior in the hours before Phoebe’s death, including a visit with his custody lawyer and speeding down Interstate 275.
“I don't think it works to your advantage, if the goal is to kill your daughter, to draw all kinds of attention by behaving in ways that would get people concerned,” Otto said. “I think that’s inconsistent with someone who is planning to kill his daughter and move on.”
The trial resumes Thursday, when the defense is expected to call its final mental health expert, Dr. Michael Maher.
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