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  1. Pinellas

John Jonchuck's lawyers rest their case, hoping insanity is clear

Assistant Public Defender Jane McNeill talks with defendant John Jonchuck, Thursday during his murder trial. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published Apr. 4

LARGO — The trial of John Jonchuck has moved past concrete facts.

For a week, the public defenders in his murder case have worked to convince jurors that Jonchuck did not understand dropping his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge was wrong. They called three mental health experts to explain that Jonchuck was insane at the time he killed Phoebe.

But even those experts, two psychologists and a psychiatrist, conceded it's impossible to know for sure what went through Jonchuck's mind.

Instead, the case now hinges on opinions of Jonchuck's behavior and medical history, and how jurors interpret those evaluations.

Day 13 live blog: The defense wraps its case

John Jonchuck's mental condition

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

"The difficult part for the defense is that you're going to have to convince the jury to give him a pass because of his mental state for killing his own daughter," said Pinellas criminal defense lawyer Jay Hebert. "The facts are incredibly egregious. They're undisputed."

Testimony before Jonchuck's lawyers rested their case Thursday included frequent mentions of a knocking Bible, religious chanting, demons and possession — and repeated attempts to explain what all of that means.

Jurors scribbled notes on yellow legal pads and swiveled their heads between the lawyers and the witnesses, who walked through the medical diagnoses of schizoaffective and bipolar disorder, and symptoms like paranoia and delusions. Sometimes, jurors looked at Jonchuck, who generally sat with his mouth open and eyes forward at the defense table.

"They're looking for signs or signals ... to determine whether or not he appears to be and acts like he is criminally insane," said Hebert, who at times has watched the testimony. "Human nature says I'm going to try to look at this guy and size him up."

The defense's case was winding and complex compared to the prosecution's argument, which took just two full days and centered on a clear timeline to establish that Jonchuck did, in fact, kill his daughter.

To say that Joncuck is not guilty by reason of insanity — a rare defense that is often considered a longshot — his lawyers have conceded that he dropped his daughter off the bridge, but have maintained that he did not understand the implications of his actions.

In the days leading up to Phoebe's death, Jonchuck displayed erratic behavior, hearing voices and fretting about made-up issues like Chinese drywall in his mother's home. He made bizarre statements both before and after he was arrested, referring to himself as God and the Pope, and mentioning the archangel Michael. He said his daughter chanted when she touched a Swedish Bible, a family heirloom that belonged to his stepmother and drew his fascination.

Jonchuck was out of touch with reality at all of these points, the defense says, and must have been when he killed Phoebe.

The three mental health specialists who evaluated Jonchuck for the defense said they each asked him about the moment he dropped Phoebe off the bridge.

"He remembered feeling that this somehow would make her safe," psychiatrist Michael Maher said Thursday.

Psychologist Scot Machlus said Jonchuck's memory of dropping his daughter is flawed. He had yelled, "You have no free will!" at the police officer who stopped behind him atop the bridge but told the psychologist later he didn't know why he said that. He also recalled holding Phoebe by her foot when he dropped her. That's not what the police officer saw.

Psychologist Randy Otto said what was going through Jonchuck's mind made no sense.

"We don't want to make the mistake of trying to impose our rationality on something" that is clearly irrational, Otto said. "That's the nature of mental illness."

The trial is expected to continue through next week as prosecutors now try to rebut the defense's insanity claim. They have hired two experts — a psychiatrist and psychologist — who plan to testify that Jonchuck was not insane when he killed Phoebe.

The prosecutors have implied he may be faking symptoms, and that he killed Phoebe out of vengeance — to punish his mother, who loved her more than him, and Phoebe's mother, who had gotten a new boyfriend and could vie for custody.

"Experts will tend to cancel each other out," said Hebert, the Pinellas defense attorney. "There's certainly significant mental health issues here. There's troubling facts all over the place. But being mentally ill is not the same as being legally insane."

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com. Follow @ZackSampson. Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshSolomon. Contact Lane DeGregory at ldegregory@tampabay.com. Follow @LaneDeGregory.

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