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

The judge rested her chin in her palm. The prosecutor marched in circles, then threw up his hands and rubbed them across his head.

Plans were crumbling before them.

The defense team stood in a huddle, whispering frantically. They had just thrust an Odessa psychiatrist, one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, into a surprise spotlight, accusing her of using faulty methods in her work on one of Tampa Bay’s most notorious murder cases. The challenge postponed the trial of John Jonchuck, 28, indefinitely, just one week before jury selection was supposed to begin.

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Jonchuck’s lawyers are expected to argue he was insane when he threw his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, off the Dick Misener Bridge in January 2015.

Psychiatrist Emily Lazarou is one of two doctors expected to testify that the young father was not legally insane at the time. She has testified in prominent murder trials before, records show, reaching similar conclusions that benefit the state, and the push to boot her testimony represents the kind of minute legal drama that rarely receives public attention.

As a complicated case stalls yet again, attorneys for both sides are set up for a clash on a new legal front: Are Jonchuck’s lawyers making a desperate last-second heave, or did prosecutors spend thousands of dollars on junk science?

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Lazarou’s full report on Jonchuck is not available in the court file. But the defense, in its motion to exclude the psychiatrist, quoted from her analysis.

"I do not believe that Mr. Jonchuck meets the insanity criteria," she wrote, according to the motion. Lazarou said Jonchuck was "malingering," or exaggerating his ailment to beat the case.

"I believe that John knew exactly what he was doing," she wrote. "I believe that it was premeditated and the purpose of this senseless, horrific crime was to punish those he perceived to have loved Phoebe over him."

Court records show she has been paid more than $22,000 for her work on the case. The defense said she evaluated Jonchuck over two days in October 2017 and May of this year. She did not return a call or email requesting comment.

On her website, under the firm LaCoop PA, Lazarou lists malingering as one of her areas of interest. In 2012, she testified that a suspected gang member, Bradley Bolden, was faking that he was more mentally retarded than he really was while on trial in the shooting and killing of a private security officer.

Two years later, during a hearing for infamous Tampa cop-killer Dontae Morris, she said he was smart and not subject to poor judgment because of below-average intellect.

That same year, she testified that Edward Covington — a man accused of killing his girlfriend, her two children and their dog in Lutz in a brutal crime that shocked even Hillsborough County’s veteran sheriff — was a psychopath but not legally insane.

Jonchuck’s defense team has signaled it intends to argue bipolar disorder made him too mentally ill to be convicted for murder. Lazarou, according to the motion, also labeled Jonchuck a "dangerous, cold-blooded psychopath."

His public defenders said they consulted a second forensic psychiatrist, Ryan Wagoner, an assistant professor from the University of South Florida, who raised concerns after reviewing video of Lazarou’s testing of Jonchuck. Wagoner, the lawyers said, "describes the evaluation as being very biased and coercive in nature."

He declined to comment when reached on his cell phone.

According to the defense motion, Lazarou also failed to perform "any malingering testing" and "testified she has never felt sympathy for a defendant or a defendant’s family post-verdict, though she often publicly sympathizes with victims."

Lazarou’s background seems typical when compared to the other doctors on the case. She is licensed to practice, and state records show she has no public Department of Health complaints. She holds a degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

She has served as an expert witness in at least nine circuits in Florida, according to the Justice Administrative Commission, which keeps track of payments to expert witnesses on behalf of states attorney’s offices and public defenders.

That past experience should help the prosecution’s case.

"The court is going to absolutely take into account that she’s been found credible in prior cases," said St. Petersburg defense lawyer Lee Pearlman. "They’re going to have to have some really powerful scientific literature and some scientific studies to show that the person shouldn’t testify."

Typically a judge will allow a witness to testify, and the opposing attorneys can try to attack the person’s credibility during cross-examination. Judges are tasked with keeping phony science out of the courtroom by serving as gatekeepers to evidence, but that presents a high bar for exclusion of an expert witness.

The testimony, Pearlman said, would have to be "something that a jury shouldn’t hear in the first place."

• • •

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger has not set a date to hear both sides’ arguments on Lazarou.

Outside attorneys said the witness problem should not delay the case long.

"A lot of this sounds like pretrial skirmishing between the state and the defense in what is going to be a hotly contested trial," said Tampa defense attorney John Fitzgibbons. "It would be extraordinarily unusual for a trial judge to prohibit the state’s expert psychiatrist witness from testifying before the jury."

Another criminal defense attorney, Bjorn Brunvand, had a different read: "Judge Helinger is not going to continue a case unless there’s valid reason for it."

The prosecutors and public defenders are next scheduled to appear in court Monday, when they could pick a new trial date.

It will be 1,355 days since Jonchuck was arrested.

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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