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John Jonchuck trial stalls Tuesday amid concerns he's hallucinating

Defendant John Jonchuck, center, talks with his attorney Jane McNeill, right, during a break in his murder trial Tuesday.  (SCOTT KEELER   |   Times)
Defendant John Jonchuck, center, talks with his attorney Jane McNeill, right, during a break in his murder trial Tuesday. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published Apr. 2, 2019

LARGO — John Jonchuck has been hearing and seeing things that don't exist since the night before his murder trial began, public defender Jessica Manuele said Tuesday in an announcement that brought the proceedings to a halt.

She asked the judge to have an expert evaluate Jonchuck before continuing the trial.

"We certainly have some concerns at this point," Manuele said.

Day 11 live blog: Competency questions halt the trial

John Jonchuck's mental condition

The trial comes down to one question: Evil or insane?

A court psychologist talked to Jonchuck in the afternoon, and determined he was okay for the trial to continue. He has been taking all his medications, except one for constipation, said the psychologist, Jill Poorman. "And my analysis is that he's still competent."

But the defense asked for a second opinion, so another psychologist will see him at the jail Wednesday morning to determine if he is fit to continue the trial.

"He's been displaying inappropriate laughter," Manuele said of Jonchuck, "which is a symptom we've come to recognize when he does appear to be losing touch."

Jonchuck, 29, threw his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, off the approach to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in January 2015. An off-duty police officer watched him let her go, and heard the girl scream as she fell 62 feet into Tampa Bay.

Several months later, Jonchuck was declared incompetent to stand trial. He had been in a state mental health treatment center until the trial began late last month. And though his lawyers said Tuesday that he has seemed to be hallucinating on several occasions, this is the first time they have raised the issue in court.

Jonchuck insists he's fine, Manuele told the judge. But "if you're not able to understand the testimony in your own trial, that's concerning."

One night, the lawyer said, Jonchuck thought a psychiatrist who had evaluated him was in the jail, saying disparaging things about his defense attorney. The doctor wasn't in the jail. Another time, Jonchuck said that same psychiatrist was sitting in the front row of court. She wasn't. In fact, the trial wasn't even happening the day in question. Jonchuck thought he heard the prosecutor whisper something during jury selection. The prosecutor didn't say anything. And Jonchuck said he overheard jurors saying they weren't even going to listen to doctors' testimony.

In court, Jonchuck has rarely displayed much emotion, save for when prosecutors showed autopsy pictures of Phoebe's bruised body and when his mother testified for the first time. He often sits at the defense table, staring straight ahead or down, sometimes cupping his chin in his hands, his mouth slightly agape. He whispers with his defense attorneys, writes notes on a pad and occasionally smiles. A deputy sits over his shoulder, watching.

Before the trial began, Jonchuck's lawyers hired a "confidential" expert to get a baseline on his mental state. That psychologist said there was some "apparent trauma" associated with interviews Jonchuck had with a psychiatrist, the same one he thought he heard in the jail before jury selection.

If the next psychologist says Wednesday that Jonchuck is competent, the trial will likely continue.

If he isn't, the judge could hold a competency hearing or appoint a third expert to evaluate him.

Jurors are scheduled to be back in court at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

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