John Jonchuck makes appearance in court as trial looms

Jonchuck, 29, looked frail at a pre-trial hearing Thursday.
Published March 14
Updated March 14

LARGO — When John Jonchuck walked into the courtroom on Thursday ahead of his murder trial next week, his physique was striking.

The 29-year-old was transformed by weight loss since he was taken into custody Jan. 8, 2015, hours after his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, died. He looked frail in court. His puffy cheeks, so familiar from his jail photos, flattened out, revealing a sharp and protruding lower jaw. The shape of his collarbone was visible.

Jonchuck is charged with first-degree murder. He's accused of dropping Phoebe 62 feet from the Dick Misener Bridge early that morning. Rescuers pulled her body from the cold waters of Tampa Bay. She drowned.

Previous coverage: The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

He has spent years in the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center outside Gainesville, where doctors worked to improve his mental health so he could face his. He was found of sound mind to stand trial in 2017, but court delays kept pushing back the trial date. He transferred from the treatment center to the Pinellas County jail on Wednesday ahead of the trial, which starts Monday and could take four weeks.

Jonchuck's lawyers will argue the jury should find him not guilty by reason of insanity. If the jury agrees, he will spend years, likely the rest of his life, in a state treatment center. If he is convicted, he'll be handed an automatic lifetime prison sentence.

Thursday's court hearing, to discuss two defense motions to exclude certain testimony, was the first time the public has seen Jonchuck in years. His lawyer said he shed 100 pounds, though the Sheriff's Office jail log says he only lost 40. His hair, heavily gelled, was parted on the left and showed signs of graying.

Before the hearing, one of his defense lawyers, Jane McNeill, asked Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger if Jonchuck could change clothes. Jail staff had dressed him in a red jail suit that identified him as a "high-risk" inmate. Helinger said he could come to court in a standard orange suit.

When Jonchuck walked into the courtroom, flanked by bailiffs, he had the same even expression he wore throughout the whole hearing. He sat at the end of the defense table, farthest from the prosecutors, with public defenders Jessica Manuele and McNeill at his side. At times he rocked back and forth or appeared to bounce slightly in his chair, though otherwise made few gestures or movements.

The hearing took all morning and resumed following a break in the afternoon. Before the room broke for lunch, McNeill asked if Jonchuck could have water and some Tic Tacs, as his mouth gets dry from his medication. A bailiff said water was okay, but nothing else that's not administered by the jail. He had a Dixie cup of water during the afternoon session, and occasionally wiped his mouth or face with a napkin.

The hearing itself droned on. The first motion addressed whether expert witnesses will be able to testify about Jonchuck's psychotic characteristics. Prosecutors called a witness, forensic pyschologist Peter Bursten, who evaluated Jonchuck for the purposes of determining his sanity. Bursten said he found that Jonchuck exhibited traits associated with psychopathy and administered a test to determine if he was a psychopath. Jonchuck scored above 30 out of 40 on that particular test, the point above which someone is called a "prototypical psychopath."

Bursten also said he diagnosed Jonchuck with a mental illness, "bipolar disorder with mood-incongruent psychotic features."

"While I found Mr. Jonchuck has a legitimate mental illness, I also found there were co-occurring personality disorders," he said. "I felt in my opinion, it was the personality disorders that were the primary driving force behind Mr. Jonchuck's mental state at the time of the alleged offense."

Defense lawyers sought to prevent that testimony from reaching the jury, saying it would "unduly prejudice the jury" against Jonchuck. Helinger denied the motion.

The second motion sought to exclude testimony about hypothermia as a contributing cause of Phoebe's death. Helinger denied that motion, too.

Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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