Jonchuck Trial Was a Battle of Expert Witnesses

Written on Wednesday, April 24th, 2019 by T.C. Kelly
Filed under: ExpertWitness

On the twenty-first day of trial, a jury found John Jonchuck guilty of murdering his daughter Phoebe. There was never any doubt that Jonchuck dropped his 5-year-old daughter from a bridge into Tampa Bay. A St. Petersburg police officer saw him do it.

The question for jurors was whether Jonchuck was legally responsible for his actions. The prosecution and defense relied on expert witnesses to help the jury answer that question.

Florida’s Insanity Defense

Florida statutes still use the phrase “insanity defense” to describe a claim that a defendant’s mental condition at the time a crime was committed prevented him from being legally responsible for his actions. Florida continues to follow the M’Naghten rule, which shields a defendant from legal responsibility for a crime only if the defendant did not know what he was doing or did not know that what he was doing was wrong.

To make it even more difficult for defendants to prevail, Florida requires the defendant to prove insanity by clear and convincing evidence. Until 2000, when a defendant raised the insanity defense, the burden was on the prosecution to prove that the defendant knew what he was doing and appreciated the wrongfulness of his conduct.

Few defendants are able to avoid criminal responsibility under the M’Naghten rule, particularly in states that place the burden on the defense to establish the defendant’s state of mind. Even in states that follow a different definition of insanity, it is rarely raised as a defense because juries nearly always want to hold defendants accountable when they clearly committed a crime, regardless of their mental health status.

As neuroscientists ask whether “free will” (the intellectual underpinning of criminal punishment) even exists, there is ample room for expert witnesses to give competing testimony about a defendant’s ability to appreciate or control wrongful behavior. Those differences of opinion were on display in the Jonchuck trial.

Defense Experts

Scot Machlus, a forensic psychologist, interviewed Jonchuck two years before the trial to determine his competency. He also reviewed Jonchuck’s extensive history of mental health treatment, including commitments to a psychiatric hospital.

Johchuck had a history of hearing auditory hallucinations, often believing that he was receiving instructions from God. Jonchuck slept with his Bible to keep evil spirits away. He believed Phoebe was possessed.

Based on that history and his own interviews, Machlus testified that he diagnosed Jonchuck with bipolar disorder with psychotic features. He also concluded that Jonchuck was unaware of the wrongfulness of his behavior and was out of touch with reality.

Forensic psychologist Randy Otto, an associate chair of the Department of Mental Health Law & Policy at the University of South Florida, also testified for the defense. He interviewed Jonchuck multiple times, administered psychological tests, and reviewed evidence of Jonchuck’s mental health history.

Otto testified that Jonchuck suffered from a schizoaffective disorder and a personality disorder. He believed that Jonchuck suffered from paranoid and grandiose delusions. He did not believe that Jonchuck was faking symptoms of those disorders.

The third defense expert was Dr. Michael Maher, a certified forensic psychiatrist. He considered the evaluation of Jonchuck to be complicated because of Jonchuck’s history of mental health treatment, his difficult family history, and the length of time he has been taking prescribed medications.

Dr. Maher expressed confidence that Jonchuck suffered from a mental illness. He diagnosed Jonchuck’s condition as schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, and bipolar disorder with psychotic episodes. He noted that different professionals might interpret symptoms in different ways and arrive at a different diagnosis, but he agreed with the other experts that Jonchuck had a severe mental illness, however it might be labeled.

Dr. Maher testified that when Jonchuck dropped Phoebe, Johchuck met Florida’s definition of insanity because he was not aware of the nature and consequences of his actions. Dr. Maher concluded that Jonchuck’s “basic understanding of life and death were distorted by his delusions.”

Prosecution Experts

Peter Bursten, a psychologist, was a key prosecution witness. Bursten acknowledged that Jonchuck is mentally ill, but testified that Jonchuck knew what he was doing when he dropped his daughter from the bridge and knew that it was wrong. Bursten based that opinion, in part, on Jonchuck’s statement to a police officer, while he was still holding Phoebe, that “You have no free will.” While Bursten thought the statement was proof that Jonchuck was in his right mind, it certainly sounds like the kind of utterance that a deranged mind would produce, particularly a mind that considered itself to be controlled by an outside force.

Dr. Emily Lazarou, a psychiatrist, was a more controversial expert. Dr. Lazarou testified that Jonchuck was faking his symptoms of mental illness, thus putting him at odds with Bursten. She agreed with Bursten, however, that Jonchuck knew what he was doing when he dropped Phoebe from the bridge.

Dr. Lazarou testified that Jonchuck changed the way he discussed his delusions (from “my lawyer is God” to “I am God”). According to Lazarou, delusions are fixed. (Defense experts disagreed with that proposition.) Her perception that the delusion changed convinced her that Jonchuck is not delusional at all.

Dr. Lazarou also testified that Jonchuck couldn’t have bipolar disorder because he had been prescribed stimulants to treat attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. A defense expert challenged that assertion.

Dr. Lazarou is a “go-to” prosecution witness because she reliably testifies that defendants do not meet the state’s standard for insanity. Defense attorneys sought to exclude her testimony on the ground that she is biased, that she allows sympathy for victims to influence her testimony, and that her methodology for evaluating mental diseases or defects is unreliable.

The defense contended that Dr. Lazarou formed her opinions without conducting necessary testing. Defense attorneys argued that Dr. Lazarou admitted her unfamiliarity with professional standards governing forensic assessments. She also admitted her unfamiliarity with ethical standards governing psychiatrists.

Dr. Lazarou expressed her belief that Florida law does not sufficiently take victim impact into account and that she always keeps “the rights of victims” in mind when she conducts an evaluation. Understandably, the defense contended that her improper and unprofessional consideration of sympathy for victims (she admitted that she never feels sympathy for the accused) skews her opinions. The defense wanted the court to exclude her testimony because she is an advocate for the prosecution, not an unbiased expert.

Dr. Lazarou’s characterization of Jonchuck as “a dangerous, cold-blooded psychopath” is an example of her tendency to couch opinions in the language of an advocate rather than the neutral language of a professional. A forensic psychiatrist who reviewed Dr. Lazarou’s work on behalf of the defense concluded that she was “coercive, judgmental, and leading” in her questioning of Jonchuck.

Florida does not follow the Daubert rule, so judges generally allow an expert to give opinions if the expert is qualified to do so and the subject matter of the expert’s testimony is in a generally accepted field of science. The trial judge allowed Dr. Lazarou to testify, saying: “What you’re suggesting is that she’s a horrible psychiatrist. That’s for a jury to determine.”

Guilty Verdict

Jury deliberations are private, so we don’t know what the jury thought about Dr. Lazarou. It could have rejected her testimony entirely while basing guilt on the more credible expert testimony of Peter Bursten.

Jonchuck’s case is a textbook example of how difficult it is to prevail using an insanity defense. Jonchuck was clearly delusional. He dropped his daughter because he believed he was compelled to do so by an outside force. Three reputable experts provided convincing testimony that Jonchuck did not know he was doing anything wrong, while two prosecution experts (one of whom was controversial) disagreed. It is likely the horror of the crime that convinced the jury to reject the insanity defense and to find Jonchuck guilty.

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.