Largo, Fla. (News Radio WFLA) – In five days, hundreds of citizens entered into the Pinellas County courthouse with a new label attached to their names: “Potential Juror” Number ____” in the long-awaited start to a murder trial that has brought national attention to the Tampa Bay area.
Starting today, the final 12 jurors selected on Friday will start to decide if the death of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck, as prosecutors will lay out their case, was dropped off the Dick Meisner bridge, the main approach to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, was truly a case of premeditated murder.
The alternate theory expected from the defense: her father, John Jonchuck was insane at the time that he did what most parents would consider the unthinkable.
Jury selection wrapped up on Friday after a final pool of 67 potential jurors had gone through four days of extensive questioning on three core issues: Could they commit to sitting on a potentially four week long trial, could they separate what they may have heard about the case and still be an impartial juror, and ultimately, would they be open to returning a verdict of “not guilt by reason of insanity.”
In this second installment of our “Anatomy of Jury Selection” initial series, part of our ongoing News Radio WFLA coverage of the Jonchuck trial, we explain how the 67 became the “Trial 12” as prosecutors, defense attorneys and Judge Chris Helinger made the final selection.
STAGE FOUR: LET’S GET TECHNICAL (Part 2)
For this second stage of jury selection that began on Friday, Judge Helinger and attorneys for both sides shifted their focus to more traditional legal issues that are addressed in trials regardless of whether a case is considered “high-profile.”
As reported by the Tampa Bay Times, prospective jurors faced questions on a broad, but general range of legal standards to determine if they could, once and for all, be “fair and impartial” if they were selected, ultimately deciding Jonchuck’s verdict.
Among the topics:
- Whether they knew any of the witnesses on both sides that are expected to testify
- Would they be able to evaluate expert testimony on the question of Jonchuck’s mental health?
- Whether any of the jurors or family members had been victims of a crime
- Jonchuck’s right to remain silent and not testify during the trial
- Weighing the evidence when it comes to witness credibility, burdens of proof and the concept of “premeditated murder”
Once those questions were answered, Judge Helinger, prosecutors and Jonchuck’s attorneys were ultimately left with 48 to select the final 12 plus 4 alternates. However, one thing Judge Helinger did for the first four long and arguably extensive days of jury selection, set up a last minute legal “safety net” that seated the jury that return today.
STAGE FIVE: ACCEPTANCE
Turning back to my own experience as a prosecutor, here is how the final selection process takes place in any murder case in Florida.
Going back to my story on Tuesday and what we learned this week in Jonchuck’s jury selection, prosecutors and defense attorneys knew certain information about the prospective jurors and would build an initial organizational chart. The purpose is two-fold: stay organized on where jurors are seated or moved during questioning as some are excused then figure out what reasons they want to use to excuse more jurors, this time at their request.
Attorneys typically use two types of legal challenges to select the final jury.
The first are “Cause Challenges.”
Both sides have an unlimited number of these challenges in a traditional case (felony or misdemeanor) to excuse prospective jurors for the same number of hardships, excuses, disabilities, pre-trial publicity, ability to consider an insanity defense… or any other reason that was put forth last week.
Here’s the hook: Judge Helinger took it upon herself to excuse those people during the ongoing questioning instead of waiting to the final selection process that happened on Friday.
Hence the not-so-magic number of 70 (that turned into 67, then 48) that she would ultimately get to by Friday night.
With that 48 in place, attorneys would then have 10 “Peremptory Strikes” to use in order to select the final 12.
Those “strikes” are presented to any judge to remove a potential juror without an initial stated reason, usually based on something the person said, how they acted, or reacted to a question, in addition to whether a “Cause Challenge” was denied by the judge for some reason.
The legal takeaway with “Peremptory Strikes” is that they can be challenged by either side for “Protected Class” issues.Historically, this began with an issue of whether one of these strikes was racially motivated. Several Supreme Court cases originally ruled that the attorney moving to strike a minority juror must state a “race-neutral” reason on the record for why the want that potential juror removed.
The classic law-school (and real-life) example goes something like this: Prosecutors striking African-American jurors in a case involving an African-American defendant to seat a mostly white jury.
The law went back to protecting the fundamental concept of the Constitution under Amendment Six: ensuring any defendant the right to a jury of their peers.
Translate that today, that means a “fair and impartial” jury… three words that we have mentioned repeatedly, should always be the gold-standard for a juror in any criminal case, regardless of who the defendant is.
Over the past two decades, those protected classes have been greatly expanded by state and Federal courts to gender (both male and female depending on the defendant), religious beliefs, sexual orientation, age and other issues.
LEGAL LESSON: HOW TO SELECT A JURY
Below I have posted how a hypothetical felony trial that would only require six jurors would play out on “The Chart.” This an exercise and example I have used in classes and seminars on this issue (See "Sample Jury Selection Chart" below).
The judge would first ask both sides about those “Cause Challenges” – where it is legally objective that someone should be excused (Keep in mind, this is what Judge Helinger continued to do last week on her own).
Taking those jurors out, the judge would start with prosecutors and ask if they would “accept” the first set of six remaining jurors (in this hypothetical, jurors 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 (follow the red numbers in the upper right square).
The defense would then strike juror 4. Back to prosecutors who strike juror 7.
That leaves jurors 1, 3, 5, 6, 8 and 9 (again, follow the red numbers), they would become the final 6, highlighted in green.
And that is how you select a jury.
An important note on alternates: they are equally as valuable as the 12 that will decide the case. First and foremost, alternates and jurors will NOT know which category they fall into.
They will all sit and hear the entire case, until it goes to verdict.
An alternate may replace a juror if one of the 12 ends up sick, develops a conflict, or for any number of rare reasons.
STAGE SIX: TRIAL BEGINS
On this Monday morning, 16 citizens are now the 12 jurors and four alternates on the John Jonchuck trial.
Monday afternoon they will hear opening statements from both sides as they begin their unique journey in this case: to ultimately determine whether Phoebe Jonchuck’s death was a premeditated, intentional and calculated case of murder, or one where her father was legally insane on that January 2015 night and could potentially spend most of his life locked up in a mental health facility.
We will continue to provide updates on the John Jonchuck trial on-air at News Radio WFLA (970 AM, 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 as well.