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John Jonchuck set for spring 2019 trial in death of daughter Phoebe

John Jonchuck appears on a video monitor before a judge on Jan. 8, 2015, hours after authorities said he threw his 5-year-old daughter Phoebe off a bridge and to her death. His trial on a charge of first-degree murder has faced numerous delays. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]
Published Sep. 24, 2018

CLEARWATER — The day John Jonchuck was supposed to go on trial in the murder of his 5-year-old daughter, attorneys met instead to discuss a new trial date.

The trial was delayed after Jonchuck's attorneys raised concerns about one of the prosecutors' key expert witnesses last week. On Monday, Judge Chris Helinger reset the proceeding for March 18.

By then it will have been more than four years since Phoebe Jonchuck was dropped from the Dick Misener Bridge just after midnight, on Jan. 8, 2015. Her father faces a first-degree murder charge.

Jonchuck did not attend Monday's hearing.

Defense attorneys, who are expected to argue that Jonchuck was insane at the time of the crime and should therefore be found not guilty, filed a motion last week to exclude the testimony of psychiatrist Emily Lazarou. Hired by prosecutors, Lazarou evaluated Jonchuck over two days in October 2017 and May of this year and determined Jonchuck was a pyschopath, but not insane at the time of the crime, according to the motion.

Lazarou's full report on Jonchuck is not available in the court file. But defense attorneys offered a glimpse of it in their motion to exclude Lazarou, quoting from her analysis:

"I do not believe that Mr. Jonchuck meets the insanity criteria," she wrote, according to the motion. Lazarou said Jonchuck was "malingering," or exaggerating his ailment to beat the case.

"I believe that John knew exactly what he was doing," she wrote. "I believe that it was premeditated and the purpose of this senseless, horrific crime was to punish those he perceived to have loved Phoebe over him."

Defense attorneys say they have their own expert who will testify that Lazarou's evaluation was inadequate: Ryan Wagoner, a forensic psychiatrist and University of South Florida assistant professor. Wagoner, according to Jonchuck's attorneys, called Lazarou's evaluation "very biased and coercive in nature."

The defense's late motion put prosecutors in a scramble. They told Helinger they wouldn't have enough time to question Wagoner before trial unless she pushed it back. Helinger reluctantly agreed, and instead told the lawyers to appear in court Monday with their calendars to hash out a new trial date.

Prosecutors plan to defend the qualifications and methods of Lazarou, who has testified in other prominent murder cases. They are scheduled to question Wagoner under oath on Oct. 8. The next step is a hearing, set for Dec. 17 and Dec. 19, to argue over whether Lazarou's testimony should be allowed.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshSolomon. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

MORE ON THE JONCHUCK TRIAL

RELATED: Murder trial delayed once again for John Jonchuck, father accused of throwing 5-year-old daughter off bridge

RELATED: John Jonchuck will go to trial soon, but first lawyers will fight over an expert witness

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