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

Lawyers select 13 jurors who will move on to the next round. The judge hopes to seat a jury by Thursday.
Published March 18
Updated March 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?

Life.

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 jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshSolomon. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com. Follow @ZackSampson. Contact Lane DeGregory at ldegregory@tampabay.com. 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.

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