1. News

On first day of the John Jonchuck trial, questions focus on insanity and notoriety

John Jonchuck, left, gets his tie primped by defense attorneys Greg Williams while appearing before Judge Chris Helinger during the first day of jury selection on Monday at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center in Clearwater. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published Mar. 19

LARGO — John Jonchuck sat still Monday as Assistant Public Defender Greg Williams gently handled his collar, pinning down the corners on either side of his tie.

It was the first time in four years that Jonchuck has been seen in public wearing something other than inmate coveralls.

Before the first of several hundred prospective jurors cycled through the courtroom, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger swore him in and asked a battery of questions.

Related: Everything you need to know about the case

Related: Day 1 live blog

Related: The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

How old was he? 29.

How far did he get in school? Ninth grade, but he had earned his GED.

What medication was he on? Jonchuck rattled off a handful, including Haldol and Klonopin. He was being treated for schizoaffective disorder, he told the judge.

She asked if he'd ever been incompetent to stand trial — a test, really, as Helinger knew he had been declared so for two years.

"No," he said.

Her last question: Did he understand there's only one sentence if he is found guilty of first-degree murder?


Yes, he said. He understood.

• • •

In a sense, getting to jury selection was a battle unto itself.

For two years after Jonchuck was arrested in the Jan. 8, 2015, murder of his daughter, he was declared incompetent, meaning he wasn't able to understand the murder charge he faced, or the courtroom proceedings.

Florida courts strive to restore competency. But there are defendants who spend decades in treatment. Unable to stand trial, their futures hang in limbo.

Given the heinous and senseless nature of what Jonchuck has admitted to, and his erratic behavior beforehand, it was unclear whether his case would advance this far.

Helinger and lawyers encountered a different obstacle Monday. Nearly half the jury pool had heard about the man who dropped his 5-year-old daughter Phoebe from a bridge near the Sunshine Skyway.

The notoriety of the case can be problematic for lawyers trying to select a jury that has no prejudices.

• • •

Because of the complexities of the case, Helinger expects the trial could go on for a month.

She asked the prospective jurors — 55 in the morning, 61 in the afternoon — to raise their hands if that presents a problem.

Both times, hands shot up.

The excuses ranged from tragic to wonderful, from financial to personal. One person had tickets to fly to North Carolina on Wednesday because her daughter had an emergency C-section. Another woman was due to give birth soon herself. Both were excused. Another flies to Denver every month to care for his daughter, who is undergoing intensive cancer treatment. That man was let go immediately.

Several others raised concerns about work. One man said he runs the Daiquiri Shak on Madeira Beach, and couldn't miss the time. He was let go. A woman said she runs a small nonprofit and has an upcoming event. She was made to stay.

One woman said she has diabetes and is worried about falling ill in court. Helinger, who said paramedics are on call at the courthouse, did not let her go.

Many raised concerns about missing work and paying bills. Jurors get paid only $15 per day the first three days, $30 per day after that.

As prospective jurors visited Helinger at the bench, Jonchuck sat unaccompanied at the defense's table, under the watchful eye of a deputy seated behind him. Jonchuck held a pen in his left hand and made notes on a diagram of all the jurors.

In all, 17 jurors were let go from the morning panel because of hardships. Eighteen from the afternoon panel.

• • •

After Helinger addressed the hardships, she asked the remaining jurors to raise their hands if they had been exposed to any media about the case.

Again, in both panels, more than half the hands shot up.

The judge pulled those jurors into a back room, one by one, where she and the lawyers asked questions. It took a long time to question each prospective juror individually. The courtroom fell behind schedule quickly.

Where did they learn about the case, Helinger asked. What do they know? Could they set aside what they had learned outside of court and be impartial?

One man said he was at a nearby marina the day Phoebe died, and saw the first responders race by after her body was found. He remembered going home and talking to his wife about what he'd heard.

"I said the wrong person went over the bridge," the man told the group, which included Jonchuck, who has a right to be present at all the proceedings.

Helinger asked him if he could set that aside and consider with an open mind an argument for not guilty by reason of insanity, which Jonchuck's lawyers plan to argue.

"No," he said. "Because I don't believe it."

Another man said he had heard about the case from the news.

"Threw his baby off the bridge," he recalled.

Could he fairly consider an insanity defense?

The man paused.

"I have a couple grandkids," he said. "Probably not."

Of the 55 from the first jury panel, lawyers and Helinger identified 13 people who might be good candidates for the jury. They will identify 70 people before asking further questions to winnow down that group. She hopes to start opening statements by the end of the week.

After a few rounds of asking jurors the same questions over and over, the judge fell into a rhythm. It became easier, she said, to determine who might be a qualified juror.

"I can tell by the look on their face when they walk in."

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

Correction: John Jonchuck is on several medications as part of treatment for schizoaffective disorder, including Haldol and Klonopin. An earlier version of this story mentioned an incorrect medication.


  1. Olivia Pruna, a student at Nina Harris Exceptional Student Education Center, practices with the school's drum line last year. The Pinellas County school district is asking parents and others for suggestions on ways to improve exceptional student education in the county. DOUGLAS CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    News and notes about K-12 schools and colleges in Pinellas County.
  2. A sign seen on the front door of Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria in March, after owner Tom Woodard stopped serving drinks with plastic straws. The St. Petersburg City Council voted 5-2 on Thursday night to ban single-use plastic straws. [CHRIS URSO  |  Times]
    The City Council tweaked its own ordinance banning single-use plastic straws, which is set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
  3. Student activists with the March For Our Lives group, founded after the Feb. 2018 Parkland shooting, hold a banner that promotes their new "peace plan" to prevent gun violence, while demonstrating in the rotunda of the state capitol building in Tallahassee. Emily L. Mahoney | Times
    The 18-year-old student director of March for Our Lives Florida said school shootings are so common they are “not shocking” anymore.
  4. Steven Currall prepares to deliver an address during his investiture as the University of South Florida's seventh president Thursday at the Yuengling Center in Tampa. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    Though he started the job in July, Steve Currall is officially installed as president on his 137th day in office.
  5. Apollo Global Management has offered $130 per share for Tech Data's stock in an acquisition worth $5.4 billion. If regulators shareholders approve, the home-grown company will remain based in Pinellas County, where it employs 2,000 of its 14,000 workers. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Private equity firms like Apollo create wealth for pension funds, financial institutions and individual investors by buying assets that typically are sold later at a profit.
  6. Some of Tampa Bay's largest companies are being sold or are up for sale. Times files and Bloomin' Brands
    Tech Data is just the latest in a growing list of public companies bought up by out-of-state firms.
  7. Gov. Ron DeSantis greets local officials at Dunedin High School on Oct. 7, 2019, part of a swing around the state to announce his plan to boost starting teacher pay in Florida to $47,500. He revealed a related teacher bonus plan on Nov. 14 in Vero Beach. MEGAN REEVES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The new plan would replace the controversial Best and Brightest model that DeSantis had called confusing.
  8. The "#9pmroutine" is a core social media feature for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. Now, the agency has a copyright on it. Facebook
    Copyrighting a key part of the agency’s social media presence isn’t meant to limit its reach, the office said, but rather to stop bad actors.
  9. USF student Gabriela Young is the owner of Earth and Ivory, an online jewelry business with items made out of clay.  [Special to the Times | Sarah Foster] SARAH FOSTER  |  Special to the Times | @sarahtheartiste
    Gabriela Young went from selling bracelets to friends to making clay wares for customers with her business, Earth and Ivory.
  10. Chief Veterinarian Mallory Offner examines a female rescue puppy at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    With 250 of the pooches ready for adoption, each potential puppy parent has a 1-in-4 shot at getting picked in today’s drawing.