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The murder trial of John Jonchuck is set to begin today

John Jonchuck, 29, is charged with first-degree murder in the 2015 killing of his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe. The trial is set to begin today. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Mar. 17

LARGO — The long-awaited murder trial of John Jonchuck is scheduled to begin today.

Jonchuck's arrest on Jan. 8, 2015 made national headlines because he was accused of dropping his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck, off the Dick Misener Bridge near the Sunshine Skyway.

An off-duty St. Petersburg police officer saw him hang the girl over the railing and let go. Phoebe fell 62 feet into the dark, cold waters of Tampa Bay. Jonchuck then drove into Manatee County and was ultimately arrested on charges of first-degree murder, assault and fleeing police. The assault and fleeing charges were later dropped.

Rescuers pulled Phoebe's body from the water east of the bridge later that morning. It was bruised from the impact with the water. She had drowned.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: The long fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

Since Jonchuck's first court appearance by video monitor, the trial date has been delayed countless times — including once last fall when Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger pushed the trial back one week before it was scheduled to start.

With no delays up to the morning of the trial, it will in all likelihood begin this time. Jury selection is set to start at 9 a.m. The trial could go on for four weeks.

Prosecutors hope to have Jonchuck, now 29, convicted of first-degree murder. If a jury finds him guilty, he will automatically be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, as prosecutors stopped seeking the death penalty last year.

Jonchuck's team of three public defenders hopes the jury finds him not guilty by reason of insanity. If that's the verdict, Jonchuck will spend years, and likely the rest of his life, at a state treatment center.

The trial will have an unusual rhythm. Normally, prosecutors have the only burden — proving the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In insanity cases, the defense has its own burden to prove insanity. That means prosecutors and defense attorneys will be playing offense and defense at the same time.

It also means there will be a few extra steps in the process. First, prosecutors will make their case, proving Phoebe died at the hands of her father. Then, the defense will call doctors, family and friends to make the case that Jonchuck was insane. After that, prosecutors will get to go again, presenting their own doctors and witnesses to refute the insanity arguments. The defense has argued they deserve a chance to rebut the rebuttal.

The arrangement means the trial will hinge heavily on competing expert witnesses who will offer the jury different opinions on Jonchuck's sanity. It could be that the winning side is the one with the more compelling doctors.

Jonchuck's mental health has been a concern since he was taken into custody. Shortly after his arrest, he was declared incompetent to stand trial, meaning he wasn't able to understand the charge he faced or the trial proceedings. He underwent years of treatment at the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center to improve his mental health, and he was declared competent in 2017.

Incompetence differs from insanity in that incompetence addresses someone's ongoing mental state, whereas insanity relates only to someone's state of mind during the commission of a crime.

The trial could still be delayed at any point. Jonchuck's lawyers have already raised concerns to Helinger about his mental state. Jonchuck relies on a once-monthly injection of psychotropic medication to maintain his competence. His lawyers said his latest dose was delayed by a week because doctors at the state hospital wanted to administer his medication as close to the start of the proceedings as possible. Any deterioration in Jonchuck's mental state could delay the trial, or halt it altogether.

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

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