Teary, frustrating, haunting: Inside the room where jurors determined the fate of John Jonchuck

Three jurors describe how they reached their verdict in a murder case that captivated Tampa Bay, and how they've moved on in the days after it ended.
Published May 3
Updated May 3

After three weeks of agonizing testimony, the jurors in the murder trial of John Jonchuck found themselves at odds.

They had started deliberations with a show of hands.

Ten people thought he was guilty in the killing of his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, dropping her off a bridge on a dark night into the choppy water of Tampa Bay.

Two thought he was insane — unaware that he was doing something wrong when he let go of the girl in front of a police officer atop the Dick Misener Bridge.

More than 1,500 days had passed since her long fall perplexed the region, raising questions about the depths of evil and a child welfare system that lost track of the bubbly kindergartner.

Another night would go by before the jury, after 7 hours of teary, occasionally frustrating debate, unanimously decided Jonchuck was guilty of first-degree murder.

READ: Jury returns a guilty verdict

According to interviews since the trial, jurors ultimately agreed on several key points, including that Jonchuck is mentally ill and that he knew what he was doing when he dropped Phoebe.

The law required them to weigh whether the defense had presented “clear and convincing” evidence that Jonchuck was insane. Looking back at their hundreds of pages of handwritten notes, the jurors said, they could not find that proof.

The seven men and five women called to serve as jurors in the closely-watched Pinellas County trial came from many backgrounds. The oldest was 64; and only one, a 30-year-old woman was younger than 50. The group included a scientist, three retirees, a stay-at-home dad and a pharmacy technician.

Their names were released to the public two weeks after the April 16 verdict, spurring calls and knocks on their doors by reporters. Several jurors declined to speak. Others said they needed some time. But a few shared their experiences.

“It was a real system failure from the day John was born to when Phoebe was thrown,” said Rosemary Murphy, of St. Petersburg, the 30-year-old juror who still struggles before bed with the thought that she helped send a sick man to jail.

“Why is it that I’m proud of my verdict, but I’m haunted by it at the same time?”

READ: Was it wrong to let jurors talk to witnesses in the Jonchuck trial?

READ: Day-by-day coverage of the Jonchuck trial

• • •

The jurors returned to their windowless, tan conference room inside the Pinellas County Justice Center on a Tuesday morning to tackle the core of their deliberations, a night’s sleep between them and the first vote. They took another poll. Still 10 votes for guilty, two for insanity.

The conversation began with jurors talking over each other. Murphy, one of the two jurors who initially believed Jonchuck was insane, asked for an easel to write on, to bring structure to the debate. They took turns explaining their viewpoints and flipping through the legal pads in which they had scrawled messy longhand notes during the trial, as if it were a college course. They tried to parse all the statements they had heard attributed to Jonchuck.

Everyone was committed to staying as long as needed to reach a verdict, Murphy said. They were patient with their fellow jurors, having formed a bond after spending most of a month together, talking about sports, movies, anything but the trial — and sharing home-cooked baked goods over many days of testimony.

“We knew the stakes of it,” Murphy said. “We wanted to deliver as intended.”

Their argument centered as much on the evidence they knew about what happened Jan. 8, 2015, as on the gaps in testimony they could not fill.

READ: The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

Jurors never heard from Gary Arthur, the Jonchuck family doctor whose medical records the expert witnesses relied upon in part to formulate their opinions. And they didn’t hear from Melody Dishman, Jonchuck’s supposed best friend, who was deposed in the middle of the trial but never called to testify.

Dishman’s absence was crucial for Murphy. She didn’t think she knew enough about him before the killing, and more witnesses speaking to his character would have provided a clearer view.

One juror referred to Jonchuck as a “psychopath,” Murphy said, even though the defense team had prevented mental health experts from using that label in open court.

“You might as well have talked about it,” she said. “We said it in the deliberation room, but no one was there to give us the correct definition.”

What the experts did say was often conflicting. They shared different diagnoses for Jonchuck — bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder — that were sometimes hard to track or match up. The three experts paid for by defense lawyers said Jonchuck was insane, while the two hired by prosecutors said he wasn’t.

Juror Robert Vroom said Jonchuck’s actions were more convincing to him than any of the expert testimony. He referred to a video of Jonchuck, recorded in an interview room at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office right after his arrest. Jonchuck talked to a deputy about a priest he had met and his job at a cafe. He rambled some and asked about his daughter.

“It appeared that he was acting,” said Vroom, 60, a retiree from Tarpon Springs. “That wasn’t a crazy person sitting there. That was a man planning.”

• • •

A theory some jurors proposed was that Jonchuck, afraid he had violated his reckless driving probation by speeding past a St. Petersburg police cruiser, killed Phoebe so he wouldn’t lose custody.

“If I can’t have her, nobody can,” Murphy recalled jurors saying about Jonchuck’s motive. She later learned those words echoed a statement the judge had ruled inadmissible, from a paralegal who recalled Jonchuck saying something similar hours before the killing.

Some people discussed a letter Jonchuck had received shortly before the killing, from the Social Security Administration, threatening to make him report in person to receive Phoebe’s benefits if he did not provide an accounting of how he spent the money. They thought it was a sign of financial stress, and maybe a contributor to his motive.

They didn’t talk much about the way he looked in court, they said, because they knew he was sedated and they had been instructed to not make judgments on his appearance.

Murphy remembers one man was worried about Jonchuck being let out if found not guilty and said: “Do you want him walking on the streets?”

Vroom thought about the defense’s argument that Jonchuck believed, because of delusions, that he and Phoebe needed to die.

“He didn’t toss himself over,” Vroom said.

The one other man who believed Jonchuck was insane mentioned his own religion in explaining his perspective, some members of the jury said. He focused on the old Swedish Bible that witnesses claimed was involved in delusions Jonchuck had before the killing. At one point, the jurors opened the Bible — included in the box of evidence — and looked at it on the table.

Seeing the conversation drift off topic, Vroom said they returned to the plain text of the instructions they were supposed to follow in contemplating the criminal charges. Clear and convincing meant “precise, explicit, lacking in confusion, and of such weight that it produces a firm belief, without hesitation.”

Murphy, a diligent notetaker, looked through her four legal pads. She thought Jonchuck was sick and might have been insane when he killed his daughter. But there was no “clear and convincing” evidence that he didn’t know dropping Phoebe off the bridge was wrong.

“There were holes in it, and we couldn’t complete the circle,” Murphy said.

“No one proved that,” said juror Daryl Hoffman, 61. “We made sure we discussed everything. He got a full hearing on both sides.”

With consensus apparently achieved, the jurors took a final vote. When all 12 hands went up, some broke into tears and hugged.

With their shoulders light from reaching unanimity, and their stomachs empty from working past noon, they decided to order subs and salads before delivering the verdict.

“Let’s just have a family meal,” Murphy remembers thinking.

• • •

In the courtroom, the lawyers waited nervously as the clerk read the verdict form aloud. Jonchuck sat expressionless.

Murphy didn’t want to look at him and turned her eyes to the back wall, fixating on a spot behind the witness stand.

In seconds, it was over. A deputy led the jurors out of the courtroom, to the parking lot, where they hopped in their cars and drove away from the reporters and cameras.

Vroom went to his home, behind a well-manicured lawn nearly an hour north, and had a “Free at Last” dinner with his wife, with whom he could finally talk about the case. He poured himself a cocktail with Maker’s Mark. The next afternoon, when two reporters knocked on his door, he told them he wasn’t ready to talk — it was still too fresh and difficult.

The jurors returned to their jobs or the simpler rhythms of life at home all around the county — in Palm Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Safety Harbor, Dunedin, Clearwater, Seminole and St. Petersburg.

Murphy said she thinks about the case often, struggling to return to her daily life. She remembered a counselor at the mental health treatment center where Jonchuck had been held saying that over the years, he improved from a troublesome patient to a model resident.

“Somebody finally concentrated on this person and he showed he was on the right track,” Murphy said. Now he’s going to prison to serve a life sentence.

Vroom has begun to research the case, including the paralegal’s recollection of Jonchuck’s words hours before the killing: “If I can't have her, then no one else will.”

“It’s kind of comforting to read now,” Vroom said. He’s confident in his verdict and has started to process the experience and share it with others.

Everything Hoffman’s wife has told him since the trial only further confirms his decision, too, he said. His mind lingers now not on Jonchuck, but the child welfare system.

“The focus doesn’t need to be on this poor, pathetic loser of a guy here, but what created him and what created this mess,” said Hoffman, a St. Petersburg retiree. “We can do nothing for Phoebe Jonchuck now. She’s gone. That poor little girl is gone. But there’s thousands of them out there.”

WHO WERE THE JURORS?

• Seven men, five women.

• Ages: 30, 50, 52, 54, 55, 57, 57, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64.

• Two are single, two divorced and eight married.

• Three had served on a jury before, either criminal or civil.

• Four said they, an immediate family member or close friend worked in law enforcement.

• One said he, an immediate family member or close friend was a witness to a crime.

• Two said they, an immediate family member or close friend were victims of a crime.

• Two said they, an immediate family member or close friend had been accused of a crime.

• Their jobs:

Assistant clinical coordinator

Pharmacy technician

Medical technologist

Installations Manager

Retired

Retired

Retired

Operations development

Realtor

Unemployed

Stay-at-home dad

Environmental scientist

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson. Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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