Weeks before trial, Jonchuck judge denies "novel" motion from defense lawyers

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger said she would not rewrite the rules for the defense.
John Jonchuck at his initial appearance in 2015.  [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2015)]
John Jonchuck at his initial appearance in 2015. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2015)]
Published February 28
Updated February 28

LARGO — In an unusual motion Thursday, the lawyers for John Jonchuck asked the judge to flip the script — to no avail.

In the upcoming first-degree murder trial scheduled to start March 18, the defense wanted the opportunity to speak to the jury last. In almost every circumstance, prosecutors get that right.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger denied the motion at Thursday's hearing, crediting public defender Greg Williams with thinking up a "novel" and "interesting" motion.

"There is no precedent or case law, and I don't think it's my job to rewrite" the rule, she said.

The idea behind the defense team's motion rested on the burden of proof. Prosecutors have the burden to prove Jonchuck, accused of dropping his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, to her death off the Dick Misener Bridge in 2015, is guilty. But defense lawyers must prove Jonchuck was insane at the time, which would mean he would not go to state prison, but would instead be routed to a state mental health facility.

Previous coverage: Special report: The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

Williams presented Helinger with a history lesson on common law, which he said awarded the power of rebuttal to the party with the burden of proof, irrespective of whether that party were the prosecutors or defense. Since the applicable Florida statute simply codifies common law, he said, his side should get to go last.

Assistant State Attorney Doug Ellis concisely disagreed. The defense, he said, only has to prove Jonchuck was insane with clear and convincing evidence, a lower standard than what prosecutors must meet.

"They have the presumption of innocence through the entire trial," he said. "The state has to overcome that presumption beyond a reasonable doubt, a much higher burden than they have."

After Helinger summarily denied the motion, Ellis lamented the slow "drip" of ideas coming from the defense, some of which he called "seminar" motions, implying defense attorneys learned about them en masse at seminars.

Williams took offense to the label.

"These motions have not been presented in any other courtroom anywhere, or in some seminar," Williams said.

There are two more motion hearings scheduled before the trial, March 8 and March 15.

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

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