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The trial of a Florida man accused of tossing his 5-year-old daughter from a bridge and into the chilly waters of the Tampa Bay 62 feet below where she drowned, is set to begin Monday with jury selection.
John Jonchuck, 29, has admitted to throwing his daughter Phoebe to her death in the early hours of Jan. 8, 2015 but jurors will be tasked with deciding whether he was insane at the time or just evil, according to the Tampa Bay Times. If convicted of first-degree murder in the case, Jonchuck would automatically spend the rest of his life behind bars, as prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.
If he’s found not guilty by reason of insanity, he’ll be sent to a state-run mental health institution where he could spend the rest of his life unless he’s able to prove he is no longer mentally ill.
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger told the Tampa Bay Times he’s never heard of a case in which someone found not guilty by reason of insanity on a first-degree murder case was ever released.
"Either way, he'll be in a state prison for the rest of his life, or a state hospital for the rest of his life," he said.
Before the fateful January morning, Jonchuck had various run-ins with the law. He was arrested multiple times for domestic violence against his mom and the mother of his child, along with a long history of alcohol and drug abuse. He has been involuntarily committed 27 different times under the Baker Act, the local paper reports.
Just 12 hours before a police officer helplessly watched as Jonchuck threw the girl over the bridge, Jonchuck’s divorce lawyer, Genevieve Torres, had called a state child protection hotline to report her client’s erratic and troubling behavior.
She reported Jonchuck had driven to three churches in his pajamas with his daughter and had asked Torres, who he called “God” to translate a Swedish Bible he had been carrying, the Associated Press reports.
“He’s calling the office every five minutes and saying these religious things and saying the child might not be his—it just really concerns me,” she told the operator.
However, the operator was inexperienced and never reported the call to authorities.
Jonchuck’s behavior would soon catch the attention of the police after officer William Vickers noticed Jonchuck’s car driving erratically just after midnight. Vickers began to follow the car, but he didn’t know there was a young girl inside.
The car began traveling over the Dick Misener Bridge, until it abruptly stopped and Jonchuck got out of the vehicle.
Vickers stopped his cruiser behind him, got out his gun and yelled for Jonchuck to show his hands.
Jonchuck yelled “You have no free will,” at the officer, grabbed his daughter from the backseat and dropped her from the side of the bridge.
A rescue crew later found the body of the 5-year-old floating in the river. Jonchuck, who had fled the scene, was later arrested.
Shortly after the arrest, he was deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial and has been held at the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center ever since, where he has been receiving medication. He has said he threw the child from the bridge after hearing voices.
Officials now believe is capable of standing trial for the first-degree murder charge against him.
Under the law in Florida, Jonchuck’s attorneys will have to prove his mental illness was so severe that he didn’t know what he was doing was wrong in order to achieve a successful insanity defense.
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