CONVICTED OF MURDER, APPEALS EXPECTED IN JONCHUCK CASE
Felix Vega, NewsRadio WFLA Legal Correspondent
Largo, Fla. (NewsRadio WFLA) – It took five full days in March to select the jury that would hear three weeks of testimony about the life and death of a five-year-old girl killed by her own father, John Jonchuck.
It took 12 jurors less than eight hours to convict him of first-degree murder by Tuesday afternoon, unanimously rejecting the theory that Jonchuck was legally insane the night he sent his daughter, Phoebe, plunging over the Dick Misener bridge to her death in January 2015.
Minutes after his conviction, Pinellas-Pasco County Judge Chris Helinger sentenced Jonchuck to a mandatory life sentence in the Florida State Prison.
For many who have followed this case from the beginning or even through the twist and turns of the trial itself, it may be case closed.
For some of Phoebe’s family and supporters, the verdict may bring a sense of closure four years after her death.
For Jonchuck’s attorneys, the second chapter of the case begins as they are expected to file their appeal of the murder conviction based on issues that came up before and during the trial.
Some of them were even highlighted by Judge Helinger herself as she made critical decisions about what witnesses could or could not say in front of the jury.
MAKING THE CASE FOR MURDER
In closing arguments, prosecutors focused the jury’s attention on the final moments of Phoebe Jonchuck’s life as her father pulled over on the side of the bridge and a Saint Petersburg Police officer who pulled behind Jonchuck, watched as Phoebe was dropped to her death.
Assistant State Attorney Paul Bolan reminded jurors of testimony from the Medical Examiner that Phoebe’s core body temperature was only 45 degrees as her body was in the water for 90 minutes.He described the crush injuries to Phoebe’s legs and pelvis, caused by the 70-foot fall from the top of the bridge to the water below.
Jonchuck’s attorneys had conceded that he alone was responsible for Phoebe’s death, however prosecutors still had to prove their case for first degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt, something they did not lose sight even though they had finished what’s called their “case in chief” in two days.
The defense began by calling several witnesses, including another Saint Petersburg Police officer. The focus turned to Jonchuck’s behavior in the hours before and after Phoebe’s death, including statements he made about being God, the Pope, the Archangel Michael, his sudden obsession with religion, including a “knocking” Swedish Bible, and even talk of wanting an exorcism for Phoebe.
The testimony was used to build up the insanity defense Jonchuck’s attorneys were mounting, leading up to a two-week long battle of the experts that caused numerous delays, and one day where jurors were sent home at 11am hearing no testimony at all.
The psychiatric evidence key to proving up insanity, and rebutting it, came from five expert witnesses, three doctors for the defense and two doctors called by prosecutors, all who had evaluated and interviewed Jonchuck.Combined with testimony from the other defense witnesses, attorneys needed to prove by “clear and convincing” evidence that Jonchuck had a mental disorder that caused him not to know the difference between right and wrong at the time of the murder.
In the jury instructions, that evidence to prove Jonchuck’s insanity had to be “precise, explicit, and lacking in confusion” to the point that it would create a “firm belief without hesitation.”Without reaching that conclusion, jurors logically would not be able to choose not guilty by reason of insanity as a verdict – a decision clearly made by the jury’s guilty verdict for murder.
In the end, Jonchuck’s own words about the night Phoebe died, through the various accounts he gave to the doctors, that jurors all heard, arguably were the key evidence to his conviction rather than a successful not guilty by reason of insanity verdict.
The state’s experts concluded that the “delusions” that Jonchuck claims to have experienced were not “fixed,” meaning they changed and shifted.A person experiencing a psychotic delusion would not be able to pull themselves out of it once they began going into it.
Looking ahead, as previously stated, critical decisions made by the judge in allowing psychiatric evidence, testing and testimony to be heard by the jury will set the stage for Jonchuck’s appeal.
THE LAZAROU FACTOR
Long before the trial began, Dr. Emily Lazarou became a looming target of attack.Jonchuck’s attorneys filed a motion to keep her from testifying at all in front of a jury.
In closing arguments, Assistant Public Defender summarized the reasons she believed why the jury should completely disregard Lazarou’s testimony, citing many of the reasons she argued to Judge Helinger in earlier hearings and during the trial before Lazarou testified.
Calling Lazarou an “outlier” because she did not believe, in her expert opinion, that Jonchuck suffered from a severe mental disorder that would qualify for an insanity defense, Manuelle accused Lazarou of lying about her credentials, drawing an objection from prosecutors and the judge ordering her to rephrase her statement.
She went on to accuse Lazarou of not being properly certified by the American Psychiatric Association, bringing up a lawsuit the doctor filed against the association over her ability to breast feed while taking the required examination.On cross-examination, it was that line of questioning that caused Lazarou to briefly cry on the stand while pushing forward with her testimony.
In previous hearings and in trial, the defense argued that Lazarou was biased against the insanity defense, claiming that she would routinely find defendants were not insane.It was brought out that Lazarou had in fact testified for the Public Defender’s office representing Jonchuck in a separate trial during January of this year.
While this may be one line of attack in the appeals process, from a legal perspective the Second District Court of Appeal could very well find that this argument collapses in on itself since Lazarou did in fact testify favorably in that other trial.The reason being, if she was qualified to testify for them before, why would she be discredited for prosecutors in this case.
ALTERNATE THEORIES OF MURDER
Jury Instructions are arguably the single most important set of documents used during trial.Simply stated, the instructions are the only source of law and definitions that the jury is allowed to use in deliberations and reaching one verdict over another.
However, one misplaced word, even the use of the words “and” versus “or” caught automatically be grounds to reverse a conviction on appeal.
When the judge was discussing the instructions before closing arguments, it was noted that prosecutors were requesting an instruction for first degree felony murder, in addition to one for premeditation.
They successfully argued that the jury should consider that Phoebe’s death was the result of “aggravated child abuse,” a crime that does not mention premeditation of the killing itself, but only that the defendant knew that his actions would likely cause great bodily injury or death (dropping her off a 70 foot bridge).
Either theory would support a conviction of first-degree murder without the jury having to disclose in its verdict which, if not both, theories they believed.
This could prove problematic as the District Court of Appeal will look to the original indictment, which only set forth one theory of premeditation.While the law allows so-called “lesser included offenses” (second degree murder and manslaughter are standard for first degree murder), felony murder usually falls in the same category.These are verdicts that are less serious than the top charge, in this case first degree premeditated murder.
PSYCHIATRIC TESTING AND ASSESSMENT
During prosecutor’s rebuttal case in which their experts testified that Jonchuck was not insane, two tests were challenged by the defense that were used in the doctors’ evaluations of Jonchuck.
One was a violence assessment, done by Dr. Bursten helped him decide if Jonchuck was in fact psychotic.While Judge Helinger found the questions and answers could be viewed as a type of “character assassination,”
A second test called the “PCLR,” or Psychotic Checklist Revised, that the judge called “devastating” was allowed to be discussed by Dr. Bursten, testimony that the defense did not want introduced.That test looks at character traits including pathological lying, lack of remorse or guilt, and whether someone is cunning and manipulative.
Dr. Lazarou also used this assessment and was given limitations by the judge, cautioning the doctor not to use words including “evil” or “cold-blooded.”
The defense went on to challenge how Lazarou was trained to do the assessment, claiming she was not even qualified to administer it.
A decision on the use of this assessment could affect future cases involving the insanity defense. Lawyers would have court decisions that tend to exclude or limit expert testimony for the state, thereby helping the defense prove insanity.
Jonchuck, for now, will begin serving his life sentence at a prison selected by the Department of Corrections.There is no chance of parole or release.
While his attorneys may file his appeal for any of the reasons lifted, if not more, the second chance at a trial on one mistake made in this trial would come before any chance of outright release.
The case may be closed in terms of our continuing coverage and the Pinellas County Clerk of Court.
It will likely open again in the Second District Court of Appeals in a matter of weeks.