Will prosecutors lose a key witness in the John Jonchuck case? Defense attorneys say they should.

A psychiatrist is at the center of the latest delay in the John Jonchuck trial. Lawyers say she has troubled them before.
Published December 4
Updated December 7

The lawyers will not debate whether John Jonchuck dropped his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge.

When the 29-year-old goes to trial on a first-degree murder charge more than four years after Phoebe’s death, his defense team will argue he cannot be convicted because he was insane when he killed her.

The case will hinge on the testimony of five doctors, who will offer conflicting opinions about what went through Jonchuck’s mind when he let go of his child. Jurors, most likely with no advanced medical training, will choose who they believe more.

Insane or not insane.

MORE COVERAGE: John Jonchuck says 'voices' drove him to drop daughter from bridge

READ: The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

One of the doctors has drawn a direct challenge: psychiatrist Emily Lazarou, who plans to testify for the prosecution that Jonchuck was not insane.

By resume, Lazarou looks like a fine expert witness — a Baylor University alumna with multiple degrees and an active clinical practice. But defense attorneys don’t want jurors to hear from her at all. They say her methods are biased and coercive, and they’ve lined up another doctor to testify as much.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: John Jonchuck will go to trial soon, but first lawyers will fight over an expert witness

DELAY: John Jonchuck set for spring 2019 trial in death of daughter Phoebe

The challenge has halted an already long-delayed trial, illuminating a procedural slice of the justice system rarely in the public eye. There is no single oversight agency for expert witnesses in Florida, so their credibility is litigated on the fly.

Public defenders and prosecutors are set to spar over Lazarou during a two-day hearing later this month. She is one of two doctors the prosecution plans to lean on to argue Jonchuck was not insane when he killed Phoebe, compared to three in opposition for the defense.

Defense lawyers who have encountered Lazarou say she is flippant and confrontational. She once called a defendant an “Asian Beavis and Butt-Head” and said another was not schizophrenic in part because he wore Gucci shoes.

“She will give the state exactly what they want,” said Pinellas County lawyer Roger Futerman.

Prosecutors have turned to her in a number of notorious murder cases dealing with mental health issues across Tampa Bay.

“She’s an expert,” said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. “She’s certainly qualified as one and can give her opinions.”

If convicted, Jonchuck will spend the rest of his life in state prison.

• • •

When an expert witness takes the stand, prosecutors or defense lawyers begin by asking for their credentials. The process, typically formulaic, is called qualification.

After she graduated from Baylor, Lazarou earned a master’s degree and a medical degree, and was a chief resident at the University of South Florida. She has a medical license and no complaints on the Florida Department of Health website. She worked in telepsychiatry, treating patients remotely, in prisons, and has her own practice in Hudson.

Lazarou, 44, maintains a Facebook page for her psychiatry firm, La Coop PA, where she posts about her casework. It depicts a doctor devoted to her patients, and who has the bootstraps mentality of a high school football coach.

When she’s in the courtroom, Lazarou wrote, lawyers bring up “one excuse after another as to why this person does what they do.”

“I don’t ever minimize an awful childhood because it is significant, but it is not cause and effect,” she wrote. “As humans we CHOOSE our behavior. The majority of the time, it is the criminal mind that is behind the crime — mens rea.”

The doctor once described a murderer who she said implied she led “a glamorous life.”

“I work CONSTANTLY,” she wrote, next to a picture of her office. “It’s not glamorous at all, but I love it.”

Interspersed with professional commentary are pictures of her children. Lazarou wrote that her primary goal “is to be a great mother” with being a great doctor “a close second.”

Her professional philosophy is detailed in court records, including a deposition in the Jonchuck case during which defense lawyers asked whether she considers herself a victim advocate.

“Oh, definitely a victim advocate, yeah,” Lazarou replied. “I hate that people are hurt, yep. As a physician I think that that would be universal.”

Expert witnesses are critical to both criminal and civil cases, sometimes making thousands of dollars. Lazarou has earned more than $723,000 over a decade of work in Florida courts, according to state records. About 90 percent of that, $655,000, was from prosecutors.

She declined to comment for this story but said in an email that she will "testify as it relates to these issues" at the hearing.

In other testimony, Lazarou explained she does not consider criminal defendants she evaluates to be patients.

Pinellas public defender Christina Owers Porrello once pressed Lazarou on the stand over her objectivity. The doctor denied writing a report in favor of prosecutors just because they paid her.

“This is my subjective opinion of objective findings,” she said, later adding: “That’s why I’m hired, for my opinion.”

The public defenders in the Jonchuck case pushed to exclude Lazarou from the trial in September, one week before jury selection was set to begin. They wrote in a motion that another doctor reviewed the evaluation and found it to be “very biased and coercive.”

Lazarou posted on Facebook: “The lengths opposing counsel will go to get me off of a case are astounding. Their tactics are despicable, but it’s part of my work.”

• • •

The doctor who has criticized Lazarou is Ryan Wagoner, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of South Florida.

The defense team gave him transcripts of her interviews with Jonchuck — conducted over two days — and a copy of her evaluation. Wagoner identified multiple issues, which he outlined in a deposition in October.

Throughout her evaluation, Wagoner said, Lazarou spoke more than Jonchuck, correcting him and at times talking to him like he was her patient.

“If I was treating you back then, John, we’d be in a whole different situation right now,” she said.

When Jonchuck told her he had bad dreams about Phoebe, Wagoner said, Lazarou replied: “That’s a normal reaction, okay. ... I just wish you had that reaction before this happened.”

She told Jonchuck she was trained to detect lying and “that doesn’t go good for you if you do lie,” according to Wagoner, and did not ask him about manic episodes, even though he had a diagnosed history of bipolar disorder.

“The purpose of an interview is to gather information,” Wagoner told prosecutors. “It is not to convince the evaluee that their opinion is wrong.”

He declined to be interviewed for this story.

In the deposition, Wagoner took special issue with a particular section of Lazarou’s evaluation. Jonchuck pushed back on repeated assertions that he knew Phoebe was afraid of water, Wagoner said, but Lazarou wrote: “He knew that she was fearful of water, and to end her life he dropped her from a bridge 60 feet above the frigid sea while in a state of being woken from sleep so she could not fight. She could not swim. Her last moments were of utter fear and of a horror people only experience in their worst nightmare.”

Wagoner said that finding “is actually completely the opposite” of what Jonchuck said in the interview and took note of her writing. “Some of the language used here is not what would commonly be appropriate for a scientific report from an expert,” Wagoner added. “This is language that is more often used in novels than it is a forensic report.”

Wagoner told the lawyers he was so bothered by Lazarou’s second interview that he counted the lines she spoke in the transcript compared to Jonchuck. He found that she had talked three quarters of the time.

“Anyone who speaks for 75 (percent) of the interview is typically not conducting an interview where they want information,” Wagoner told prosecutors.

The lawyers asked for the basis of his opinion.

“Common sense,” he replied.

• • •

Wagoner is not the first person to raise concerns about Lazarou.

“I found her demeanor to be rude and arrogant,” said Ernest Boswell, a forensic psychologist who had a conflicting view in the case of Matthew Buendia, a former Marine who shot a Hillsborough deputy in 2011.

Mark O’Brien, the defense attorney in that case, took a similar approach as Wagoner, paying a transcription company to tally all the minutes and words Lazarou spoke versus Buendia. The analysis found she spoke three times as many words as her subject.

“This was actually an interrogation because you went in there with your mind made up, and all you wanted to do is lecture Matthew Buendia,” O’Brien said during cross-examination.

He accused Lazarou of mimicking him from the stand and asked why she answered the prosecution while facing the jury, but always stared back at him when he asked questions.

“You’re captivating,” Lazarou replied, according to a recording.

In the Jonchuck case, she argued with public defender Jessica Manuele during a deposition, saying the lawyer had been “intrusive” when she performed her evaluation.

“You were intrusive, you were rude and that’s how you are now and that’s how you were then,” Lazarou told Manuele. “You’re solidly rude.”

Her evaluations often strike similar themes. She has declared a number of defendants to be malingering, or exaggerating symptoms for their own benefit. She said it of Marco Parilla, who pleaded guilty to killing Tarpon Springs police Officer Charles Kondek. She said it of Joel Cruz, convicted of killing his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter. She said it of Emanuel Qosaj, who was found not guilty of attempted murder after he was accused of choking a woman with a dog leash — though he was found guilty on several other battery charges. She said it of Bradley Bolden, who was found not guilty of shooting a security guard at a St. Petersburg apartment complex.

At times her evaluations involve lengthy interviews, records show, but not always. Qosaj’s lawyer said she spoke to his client for only 10 minutes.

He was the defendant she later said in court couldn’t be schizophrenic in part because he wore Gucci sandals. Schizophrenics, Lazarou explained, tend to let their appearances slip.

She made the “Asian Beavis and Butt-Head” comment about defendant Benjamin Bishop, on trial for killing his mother and her boyfriend. Lazarou referenced the animated sitcom about a pair of socially incompetent adolescents and said Bishop lacked maturity, was lazy and laughed at inappropriate times.

“That’s not demeaning to a patient that you are evaluating in a forensic setting?” Bishop’s lawyer asked about the reference.

“He’s not my patient,” Lazarou replied. “This is a forensic evaluation.”

Bishop was found guilty and sentenced to two life terms.

• • •

The rules of expert evidence give judges wide berth to exclude “junk science.”

Outdated forensic testing, for instance — might be rejected. But experts do not need to be perfectly impartial.

Lawyers instead call into question opposing witnesses in real time, through cross-examination — casting doubt on the legitimacy of opinions before a jury.

“Bias is always there. It’s an appropriate subject for cross-examination, but it’s not a reason to exclude testimony,” said Charles Rose, a professor at Stetson University College of Law. “The system sort of polices itself in that fashion.”

Rose said it is highly unlikely that Lazarou will be excluded from the Jonchuck trial. Her involvement in previous cases will boost her credentials, and her professional work outside the courtroom makes her qualified.

Multiple people have found no fault with her work.

Wade Myers, a psychiatry professor at Brown University, taught Lazarou when she was a fellow at the University of South Florida.

“We wouldn’t have graduated her if she hadn’t completed all the requirements of the program and had not conducted herself in a professional manner,” Myers said.

Terri Hensley, the jury forewoman in a murder case that included Lazarou, remembered her as a good witness.

“I didn’t detect any bias with anything she said,” Hensley said. “She was very professional.”

If an expert witness testifies in court once, they likely will again — lawyers have no reason to go elsewhere when they find someone reliable and qualified.

“You go back to the same well quite often,” said Rose, who directs Stetson’s Center for Excellence in Advocacy.

Prosecutors are required to share any evidence they uncover that could exonerate a defendant. That means if they interview an expert in an insanity case, they risk the doctor saying something that helps the other side. The same rule does not apply to defense lawyers.

“You’re looking for someone that you can hopefully get an opinion that supports your case,” said McCabe, the Pinellas state attorney. “But it doesn’t always work out. And I can assure you the other side is doing exactly the same thing. It doesn’t always work out for them either.”

Temple University law professor emeritus David Sonenshein said the decision by lawyers on who to hire often comes down to personality rather than professional standing.

“That is considered to be the No. 1 reason why you hire an expert,” said Sonenshein, who has written about the subject, “the ability to teach people who have never taken the course.”

• • •

In a Tuesday court filing, prosecutors argued “there is no legal basis to argue for the exclusion of Dr. Lazarou as an expert witness.”

But the hearing over Lazarou remains scheduled for Dec. 17 and 19. Circuit Judge Chris Helinger, who was reluctant to delay the Jonchuck case, is set to decide whether prosecutors can use her evaluation.

The state could decide to pull Lazarou as a witness amid the scrutiny, but McCabe said he has not discussed that possibility with the lawyers on the case.

She has continued her work undeterred.

On Nov. 15, the court ordered Lazarou’s firm be paid another $4,875, bringing her total in the Jonchuck case to about $27,000.

She posted a picture to Facebook on Nov. 23, of a thick stack of rubber-banded papers.

“My version of Black Friday,” she wrote. “Finishing a report on a child murder case...”

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

Correction: Jessica Manuele was the public defender that Emily Lazarou called rude. An earlier version of this story named an incorrect lawyer.

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