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  1. Pinellas

Jonchuck judge is willing to experiment with jury selection

The defense plans to argue John Jonchuck was insane when he dropped his 5-year-old daughter Phoebe off a bridge into Tampa Bay
John Jonchuck, now 29, is will stand trial for first-degree murder.
Published Feb. 15

LARGO — On the first day of jury selection in the John Jonchuck trial, the lawyers and judge are going to run an experiment.

They'll try to question the jurors individually in a separate room about two issues: first whether they have read or watched any news coverage of the 4-year-old case, and second, what their feelings are on the idea of not guilty by reason of insanity. It could be a time-consuming endeavor.

"If it takes us all day," said Pinellas-Pasco Judge Chris Helinger said during a pretrial hearing Friday, "then I'm going to change it."

Its an idea that appears to attempt to thread the needle between the desire of Jonchuck's defense team to question jurors privately about the defense — which they plan to argue during trial — and the concern from prosecutors that that would be impractical and unprecedented. And it's the latest example of gamesmanship as both sides try to earn a sliver of advantage with the trial scheduled for March 18.

"It's a peculiar thing but it's a peculiar case,'' said Charlie Rose, a law professor at Stetson University College of Law. "It makes perfect sense because there's no loss to the state by doing this, except for some aggravation, and the benefit is immense if we manage to get a jury we can rely upon."

Jonchuck, now 29, will stand trial for one of the most infamous crimes in recent Tampa Bay memory: He is accused of driving onto the Dick Misener Bridge just after midnight on Jan. 8, 2015, just north of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, pulling his 5-year-old daughter Pheobe out of the car and dropping her 60 feet into the cold waters of the bay below.

PHEOBE'S STORY: The long fall of Pheobe Jonchuck

His public defenders have said they won't argue he didn't do it — rather that he was insane at the time. If they succeed, Jonchuck would likely spend years, if not the rest of his life, in a mental institution. If his defense team fails and he is convicted of first-degree murder, he would automatically serve a lifetime prison sentence, as prosecutors have dropped their bid to have him executed.

There was consensus between the defense and prosecution that there should be some level of privacy when questioning jurors, a process known as voir dire, about what they know of the case from news coverage. Otherwise, a juror could mistakenly say something in front of the whole jury pool that could bias everyone.

However, Assistant State Attorney Doug Ellis felt strongly that questions about prospective jurors' thoughts related to the nsanity defense could be handled in the court room, rather than in a separate room. Otherwise, he said, it would grind the process to a halt. Plus, they don't do that in other cases.

"Then we might as well individually voir dire every single person on everything," Ellis said. "We don't do that because it's not good for judicial economy."

Public defender Jane McNeill said individual questioning was the best way to ensure fairness.

"It would be the most efficient way to produce a constitutionally sound jury," she said.

There are still details to iron out before next month's trial date, and Helinger set two more pretrial hearings.

The first, Feb. 28, will address a motion filed Thursday by public defender Jessica Manuele. She is asking for the right to a rebuttal closing argument at the end of the case. Normally, she wrote in the two-page motion, prosecutors have the right to a rebuttal. That's because they have the burden of proof. But in this case, she said, it is up to the defense to prove by clear and convincing evidence — a standard below beyond a reasonable doubt — that Jonchuck was insane. So she thinks her side should be given the right to rebuttal during closing arguments.

The second hearing is set for March 8, when lawyers and the judge will discuss the questions they plan to ask jurors. On Friday, Helinger raised concerns about some of the questions Jonchuck's lawyers want to ask prospective jurors, including whether they've ever been taken into medical custody under the state's Baker Act, which provides for involuntary commitments for those who are deemed a threat to themselves or others. Details surrounding Baker Acts are confidential, and Helinger said jurors likely wouldn't want to answer those types of questions in a public setting.

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

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