CLEARWATER — Debate about who can have access to jail records used by doctors to assess John Jonchuck’s competency to stand trial delayed proceedings Tuesday in his first-degree murder case.
Jonchuck, accused of throwing his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, off a bridge into Tampa Bay last month, has been evaluated by court-appointed doctors, two of whom found him to be incompetent. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger has not ruled whether Jonchuck is capable of understanding the case against him or instead should be sent to a state mental institution until he is able to do so.
Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, a state legislative panel on Tuesday heard results of a study into a series of missteps by the state’s Department of Children and Families leading up to the girl’s death. The DCF report concluded Phoebe was subjected to a storm of mental health issues, substance abuse and domestic violence in her short life.
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Doug Ellis with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office is seeking access to 32 jail record entries used by doctors to evaluate Jonchuck’s competency. But Assistant Public Defender Kandice Friesen said the state has no valid reason to see them. Only the judge, she maintained, who must rule on Johnchuck’s competency, needs to view the jail records.
Jonchuck was arrested Jan. 8 after authorities said he dropped Phoebe to her death off the Dick Misener Bridge, which leads to the Sunshine Skyway. The kindergartner was alive when she plummeted to the water, a medical examiner determined.
Jonchuck has a history of mental health issues that are expected to play a role in the case. Lawyers initially were in court last week to discuss Jonchuck’s competency, but the matter was reset for Tuesday. Now that hearing will take place 27, following a Feb. 24 discussion of the defense’s objection to the state’s request to view the jail records.
Friesen opposed any delays in the proceedings, saying her client is “sitting in a jail cell naked,” and is considered a threat to himself and others.
Jonchuck was not in the courtroom Tuesday.
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DCF Secretary Mike Carroll told a state House committee Tuesday that the report was a “deep dive” into the case, and reveals the many obstacles the girl faced.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican, said what stuck out in the report were all “the missed opportunities” to help Phoebe.
“Do we need to take a better look at the training of the front-line worker out there?” she said. “Have we spent enough money? What do we need to do better?”
Carroll answered by highlighting what the department already is doing, including requiring abuse hot-line counselors to have a four-year college degree and undergo 13 weeks of training, including nine weeks in a classroom.
“That’s a big investment,” Carroll said.
The biggest hurdle is retaining good people, the DCF secretary said. “Getting (employees) who are qualified to do this work and then getting them to stay on the job is a challenge,” Carroll said. “It is very stressful work. The work hours are incredible and not predictable; you could give up your holidays, your weekends.
“And you always work with a level of uncertainty,” he said. “Every family you address, every home you walk into, you’re asked to make decisions ... and you think you make the right decisions but when you walk out of that home, you never know.”