Largo, Fla. – News Radio WFLA – It has taken over four years before the first citizens would enter the Pinellas County Courthouse as potential jurors Monday morning to decide the fate of a father who is accused of what has been described as the unthinkable – dropping his five-year-old daughter to her death off of the Dick Meisner bridge into the dark waters 60 feet below on a cold January morning.
That daughter is Phoebe Jonchuck.
Her father, 29-year-old John Jonchuck is now on trial for first degree, premeditated murder for Phoebe’s 2015 death.
Now the search is on for 12 people ordinary citizens who will have the extraordinary task of deciding if Jonchuck is guilty of murder or was insane when Phoebe was killed, so much so that he would be found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Pinellas County prosecutors were originally seeking the death penalty up until the summer of 2018 when they took the possibility of a death sentence off the table. Instead, if the 12-person jury in his case returns a unanimous guilty verdict, he spend the rest of his life in prison.
The big question in the first week of our News Radio WFLA coverage is how will prosecutors, Jonchuck’s defense team and Judge Chris Helinger work together to select by legal standards a “fair and impartial” jury of 12 people, along with several alternate jurors, that will spend upwards of the next four weeks or more deciding Jonchuck’s fate.
The formal legal term for the jury selection process is called “voir dire,” simply translated “to speak the truth,” in any routine trial or, as the Jonchuck case has become labeled as “high-profile.”
To understand the process, we present our new, ongoing series the “Anatomy of Jury Selection” as part of our coverage of the John Jonchuck trial.
STAGE ONE: GETTING TO KNOW YOU
Before a jury panel sets foot in a courtroom, jurors will fill out a basic form or questionnaire with basic biographical information including several potential bias issues that may affect every individual juror’s ability to be “fair and impartial.”
In addition to your name, where you are from, how many children you have, and how long you have lived in your county, prosecutors and defense attorneys also want to know the following:
- Whether or not you have served on a jury (civil or criminal)
- Do you have friends or family in law enforcement or the legal system ?
- Have you, a friend or family member ever been the victim of or witness to a crime?
- Have you or a family member been accused of a crime?
The juror forms are collected by the clerk’s office. Copies of the forms are then given to the State and the defense before the panel (in the Jonchuck case, currently groups of 50 to 60 potential jurors) enters the courtroom for the selection process.
Lawyers on both sides use a form similar to the one below (created from an actual form I use for teaching purposes) to prepare for an orderly jury selection based on where jurors are seated for purposes of ultimately how jurors will be questioned, who will be challenged by either side for not being “fair and impartial” for any number of reasons, (as long as they are not based on gender, race or other protections), excused or selected.
STAGE TWO: READY, SET, CONFLICT?
Every judge generally uses the same format and rules for prosecutors and defense attorneys to follow during the selection process, however they are free to set their own rules, especially in high-profile cases and cases that may take a long time to try.
On Monday, Judge Helinger began the slow, methodical journey of choosing the Jonchuck jury with one basic question: Who is able to serve on this jury for possibly four weeks straight.
Reporting from the Tampa Bay Times staff in the courtroom shows that many hands went up immediately.
As a prosecutor myself for the better part of 16 years, there is never a shortage, variety or even a creativity for why a potential juror would have a conflict, especially when a trial could last beyond a few days.
Once summoned for jury duty, potential jurors have the opportunity to request a waiver for a number of reasons including single parents with primary care of their children, those who are physically unable to attend and even if you are the primary caregiver for someone who is incapacitated (for example, adult children caring for parents suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s syndrome).
However, once inside the courtroom, the Judge has full discretion to excuse a juror for a broader number of reasons. In the Jonchuck trial alone on day one, pre-planned and pre-paid vacations lead the way in terms of why jurors were excused. Other jurors were excused due to financial hardship, small business owners, medical issues, child care issues, language barrier or simply being hard of hearing.
Bottomline, Judge Helinger will narrow down the potential field of jurors in coming days in a similar way as many simply cannot commit. More importantly, neither the State or the defense want jurors who will be distracted, angry about missing work or a long-planned vacation to a tropical paradise, or simply worried about putting food on the table for their family.
Once that deck has been cleared, the next major hurdle for the Jonchuck jury selection as Judge Helinger moved on to: What do the potential jurors know about the case already.
STAGE THREE: TELL ME EVERYTHING…FOR NOW
As in most high-profile cases, so-called “pre-trial publicity” has taken on new meanings since the 2011 Casey Anthony murder trial and the 2013 George Zimmerman murder trial, two of the first high-profile cases in the Twitter and social media age of covering the courts in Florida.
Jurors on Monday were then asked about what they knew about the Jonchuck case and from what sources.
Ask any random group of people where they get their news from, just like any jury panel in this case, and you will get a wide range of answers.
Television. Radio. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Maybe even a more old school choice like the newspaper (however, that would likely be a digital subscription to a local or national paper, even more likely multiple newspapers).
Take away all the noise and one question will guide whether a juror who knows anything about Phoebe Jonchuck’s death and whether that juror will make it to the final 12: Can you set aside what you have heard about the case and only consider the facts and the evidence that you see and hear in court if you are selected to be on this jury?
That is a very tall order for anyone to swear to, let alone the 12 jurors selected in this particular case. However, it is the responsibility of every juror to follow the law and most importantly to be honest and truthful with the court and the lawyers on both sides of the aisle.
Judge Helinger conducted these juror interviews in a separate conference room, one-by-one so that no one juror could potentially affect other jurors’ perceptions and answers as it relates to media coverage.
STAGE FOUR: LET’S GET TECHNICAL (Part 1)
The overarching rule for prosecutors and defense attorneys in jury selection is to not to discuss the specific facts of the case, focusing instead on general rules of evidence and legal concepts.
One major issue Judge Helinger will address upfront with jurors is how they will handle the expected defense of insanity to be raised by Jonchuck’s attorneys.
While the term “insane” or “insanity” may be used to describe someone’s behavior by anyone, the legal definition of “insanity” is specific and spelled out in the jury instructions that ultimately guide deliberations when it is used.
Prosecutors in Florida are still required to prove their case against Jonchuck beyond a reasonable doubt, the highest standard of proof in the criminal justice system.
When an insanity defense is used, attorneys for the defendant, like Jonchuck, will have to convince a jury by “clear and convincing evidence” that the offender was insane at the time the murder happened.
That is a standard that is one step below the reasonable doubt standard but higher than the burden in civil cases where jurors only need to consider the “greater weight of the evidence” – in other words, simply tipping the scales, one way or the other, for who they believe did something right or wrong.
One aspect of the jury instructions that may work to the advantage of a defendant claiming they were insane is the assurance that the defendant should be committed to a mental hospital in case jurors opt for an NGRI (Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity) verdict.
Either way it will be the jury’s call.
Right now, the potential jurors will be getting the ultimate crash course in Criminal Procedure in a matter of minutes, hours, days, weeks or months depending on how far they get in the process.
We will continue to provide updates on the John Jonchuck trial throughout jury selection and as the trial testimony begins on-air at News Radio WFLA (94.5 FM in St. Petersburg, 105.9 FM in Tampa and 99.1 FM in New Port Richie).
Follow along with our in-depth reports online at WFLANews.com and on the AM Tampa Bay and PM Tampa Bay pages.