Pinellas judge: Controversial psychiatrist can testify in Jonchuck case

Published Dec. 10, 2018

A forensic psychiatrist who has been criticized for being "biased and coercive" in her evaluations of criminal defendants will remain as an expert witness in the case of John Jonchuck, who is accused of dropping his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge.

Over vocal objections from defense attorneys, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Christine Helinger said Monday there was no need for a hearing on whether to boot Dr. Emily Lazarou from the case.

"What you're suggesting is that she's a horrible psychiatrist," Helinger said. "That's for a jury to determine."

Jonchuck's public defenders had pushed to exclude Lazarou from testifying in his trial. They argued that her methods for evaluating defendants are unprofessional and unreliable, that she often sympathizes with victims, and that her opinions could mislead a jury.

"She is so much of a loose cannon that the court cannot put her on the stand," Assistant Public Defender Jessica Manuele said in court.

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Lazarou is one of five doctors lined up to testify about what went through Jonchuck's mind before he let go of his child. She is expected to testify for the prosecution that Jonchuck was not insane when he dropped his daughter, Phoebe, from the Dick Misener Bridge in January 2015, just north of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

In her evaluation, Lazarou concluded that Jonchuck is "a dangerous, cold-blooded psychopath."

The defense consulted another forensic psychiatrist, who reviewed Lazarou's evaluation and concluded that she was "coercive, judgmental, and leading," in her questioning of Jonchuck.

Assistant State Attorney Douglas Ellis argued that case law in Florida allows for pure opinion testimony based on an expert's training and experience. A hearing on whether an expert can testify is required only if the testimony concerns science that is "new and novel."

"Dr. Lazarou is going to testify about insanity," Ellis said. "There is nothing new and novel about that."

Helinger concluded the doctor is qualified to give opinion testimony, but suggested that the defense could challenge the admissibility of certain statements.

Jonchuck faces life in prison if found guilty of first-degree murder. His trial is set for March.

Contact Dan Sullivan at or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.