1. Pinellas

Now it's up to the jury in the John Jonchuck case

Defendant John Jonchuck sits with his attorney Jane McNeill on Monday as court begins for the day. Final arguments are scheduled, Monday. (SCOTT KEELER   |   Times)
Defendant John Jonchuck sits with his attorney Jane McNeill on Monday as court begins for the day. Final arguments are scheduled, Monday. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published Apr. 16, 2019

LARGO — Ever since Phoebe Jonchuck died four years ago, dropped by her father 62 feet from a bridge, screaming as she plummeted into the cold water of Tampa Bay, the region has waited for closure.

That moment could come soon.

After more than three weeks of testimony in the murder trial of John Jonchuck, and four hours of closing arguments Monday, the jury began to deliberate as the courthouse closed up for the evening. They will return Tuesday at 9 a.m.

Day 20: Closing arguments and deliberation

Timeline and who's who

The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

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

The seven men and five women will have to decide whether Jonchuck, 29, was insane when he killed his 5-year-old daughter. Or whether he committed the act out of malice, to get revenge on Phoebe's mother, and punish his own mother.

In Florida, unlike some other states, there is no option of rendering a verdict that says someone is guilty but mentally ill. So even though a police officer saw Jonchuck carry Phoebe from his car, to the edge of the Dick Misener Bridge, and drop her over the railing — and there is no doubt Jonchuck was responsible for his daughter's death — if jurors agree that he was insane at the moment he dropped her, they have to find him not guilty by reason of insanity.

That verdict would mean the judge could send Jonchuck to a mental health treatment center, order him to go to an outpatient treatment program, or even let him go, in theory. If he is sentenced to the mental hospital, as the judge has said would happen, he could stay there for the rest of his life. If doctors later deemed him fit, he could be released.

But if the jurors find Jonchuck guilty of premeditated murder, or first-degree felony murder, he will be sentenced to life in prison, barring an appeal.

In making their final pitches to the jury, the prosecutors and public defenders stuck to the same timeline of events but offered the sharpest versions yet of their differing interpretations of the case.

"It is never going to make sense. We've tried our hardest, we've listened to it all. It is insanity," said public defender Jessica Manuele. "John never had any ill will, or criminal intent, against his daughter. He loved his daughter. More than anything."

But the state had the last word.

"It wasn't insanity," said prosecutor Doug Ellis. "It was all the issues in his life building up: Lack of money, lack of friends and family support, lack of shelter."

The jury left the courtroom to begin deliberating at 4:47 p.m. They still hadn't reached a verdict by 6:45 p.m. and went home for the night.

"This is the most interesting trial I've ever had," Judge Chris Helinger said before she stepped off the bench. "Probably ever will."

• • •

The last day of arguments began like the first, with prosecutor Paul Bolan trying to make the jury see how Jonchuck was in the "here and now" when he killed his daughter. He urged the jurors not to take the easy way out, declaring Jonchuck insane simply because they cannot comprehend such a heinous killing. And he emphasized that just because someone has mental illness doesn't mean they're insane.

The prosecutor reminded jurors of a statement Jonchuck made at his custody lawyer's office just hours before he killed his daughter.

"He said none of this will matter tomorrow," Bolan recalled. "The day of the murder. So why don't you think about that for a moment?"

The state's case hinges on vengeance. Jonchuck, they say, was an erratic and angry drug abuser who had for years acted violently toward his family. Phoebe's mother, Michelle Kerr, was dating a new man and posed more of a threat than ever to take custody of the girl, according to prosecutors. Jonchuck's own mother, Michele, had never shown him much love as a child, but now Phoebe was the center of her world. Meanwhile, Jonchuck felt lonely and rejected.

To hurt both women, prosecutors said, he killed his daughter.

The defense argued that Jonchuck was acting on a delusion, that he and Phoebe had to die to save the world. State attorneys responded with a simple question: If Jonchuck truly believed that, why is he still alive?

"If he really believed that both he and Phoebe had to die, he didn't do it," Bolan said, raising his voice and pointing at Jonchuck. "He didn't die. He didn't jump."

Bolan's partner, longtime prosecutor Doug Ellis, paced in front of the jury later in the afternoon, trying to drive home their case. He showed a picture of Phoebe on the courtroom projector, her face smiling on the television screen hanging over the jurors' left shoulders. The image was slightly askew — a kindergarten portrait, Phoebe in a ruffled pink blouse, her favorite color.

"Her core body temperature was 44.6 degrees" when rescuers pulled her from Tampa Bay, Ellis said. He pointed to the screen, and jurors followed his finger. In the gallery, the prosecutor's wife gasped, then shook her head and sniffled.

"That little girl died in the cold, frigid water," Ellis said.

Jonchuck, sitting at the end of the defense table, lowered his head and rubbed his face.

"This case is about the death of this girl," Ellis said. "And who did it."

• • •

Defense lawyers emphasized Jonchuck's long struggle with mental health issues, pointing out that he had started seeing a counselor and taking mood-stabilizing drugs when he was 5. They said his psychosis started showing weeks, maybe months before he killed Phoebe when he started hearing a Bible thumping, seeing Phoebe's eyes turning black, and hearing voices telling him to kill himself and Phoebe.

He was not making those things up, Jonchuck's attorney told jurors. He was sick.

Manuele spent a lot of time in her closing arguments trying to discredit the prosecution's expert witnesses, especially psychiatrist Emily Lazarou. Of the five psychologists and psychiatrists who took the stand, Lazarou was the only one who believed Jonchuck does not have any mental illness, but was malingering — making things up for his own gain.

The other expert witness for the prosecution, psychologist Peter Bursten, agreed that Jonchuck has mental illness, but said that wasn't what caused him to kill his daughter. Jonchuck knew what he was doing on that bridge, Bursten had said. And he knew it was wrong.

All three experts for the defense said Jonchuck was insane at that moment.

"If five of six doctors said you had cancer," Manuele says, "you wouldn't then go home and just take some NyQuil and move on."

Manuele also recounted Jonchuck's statement after police arrested him that night. He asked officers, "Is Phoebe okay?" Then said, "She was my daughter" — using the past tense.

Instead of acknowledging that he knew Phoebe was dead, as prosecutors had said, Manuele argued that Jonchuck might still have been delusional. Did he think that Phoebe was no longer his daughter because she had turned into the archangel Michael? Or because the archangel had taken her over? "Another explanation for the same statement," the lawyer said.

"It is irrational to try to make sense of these psychotic symptoms," she said. "So the delusion doesn't make sense," and "he doesn't follow through" on the voices telling him to kill himself. "But we're also relying on John's memory," Manuele said. "We're stuck with what we have."

The judge cut Manuele off, saying she had run out of time. But the defense lawyer had one last chance to speak. "It is never going to make sense. We've tried our hardest, we've listened to it," she said.

"He caused her death. He is guilty of that." But "either he did not know what he was doing, or he didn't know it was wrong."

"That's insanity."

• • •

The courthouse was closing when jurors left to begin deliberating.

The judge looked down from the bench and encouraged them:

"You're in charge now."

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