Quick Hit on a Case Worth Watching

This will be a short post (I’ll have a longer entry this weekend), but I wanted to highlight a trial currently underway in Florida. The case has gotten some national media attention, and quite a lot in-state, since it checks all the boxes for a sensational mental illness prosecution. In 2015, John Jonchuck threw his five-year-old daughter Phoebe over a bridge in St. Petersburg, killing her in view of a police officer. From the original Tampa Bay Times feature on the murder:

On the night Phoebe’s dad scooped her from her bed, the moon was high outside her window. The house was quiet. He carried her out the door, into the dark.

It was blustery and cold, especially for Florida. He didn’t zip her into a jacket or wrap her in a blanket. All the 5-year-old had on were shorts and her green cat T-shirt.

Her dad was tall and thick, with wild hair, wearing a hoodie and plaid pajama bottoms. He eased Phoebe into the back of his PT Cruiser and strapped her into her pink booster seat.

Down the highway they raced, crossing Tampa Bay, reaching 80, 90, 100 mph.

In St. Petersburg, a police car pulled behind and followed, lights off. At the crest of the span leading to the Sunshine Skyway bridge, the PT Cruiser stopped, and Phoebe’s dad got out.

“Get back in the car!” the cop yelled. “Let me see your hands!”

Phoebe’s dad walked between the cars and shouted at the officer, “You have no free will!”

Then he went around to her door, opened it and bent inside. He lifted her out and carried her to the edge of the bridge.

Salt spray stung her skin. The wind whipped her bare legs. Her cheek rested on his sweatshirt as he cradled her against his chest.

Phoebe’s dad held her out over the guardrail, six stories above the black waves.

And let go.

Now, four years later, Jonchuck is pursuing a not guilty by reason of insanity defense. Specifically, he’s been diagnosed (and is undergoing treatment) for schizoaffective disorder of the bipolar type. The Times has been more or less liveblogging the trial, and their coverage is worth reading. I only want to highlight one part of today’s proceedings, because I think they speak to a lot of what I’ve written previously about how aggressively the state will dispute claims of insanity, even when, in a literal example of the classic legal insanity test, Jonchuck committed the crime while a police officer was standing right there:

From today’s coverage:

Schizoaffective disorder has all of the components of schizophrenia, but with additional components of a mood disorder — in Jonchuck’s case, bipolar disorder.

“I would consider it to be more complex and require more treatment, usually mood stabilizers or antidepressants are utilized,” the doctor says when Williams asks if schizoaffective disorder is worse than schizophrenia.

Doctors added Seroquel into the mix, another antipsychotic medication, plus others, such as Wellbutrin, an antidepressant, and Clonazepam, which deals with paranoia and suicidal ideation.Williams establishes that those drugs were in addition to Haldol.

“When Mr. Jonchuck arrived, did he exhibit symptoms of severe psychosis?” Williams asks. The doctor says yes.

With psychosis, memory can be faulty, the doctor says. And they correlate, in that the worse the psychosis, the worse the memory loss.

Medication can reduce hallucinations, the doctor says. Generally, he tries not to focus too much on the hallucinations while treating patients, as drawing more attention to them can increase their frequency.

Defense attorney Williams asks whether this treatment has made a difference in Jonchuck.

“I believe that it has made a marked difference,” the doctor says. “He’s certainly a more agreeable individual... Much safer to others in his environment.”

The lawyer asks if that means he’s cured.

No, we don’t have ability to cure people with these mental illnesses, the doctor says. We can just treat them.

“Is mental illness a medical condition that remains constant?” Williams the lawyer asks.

The doctor explains that there are severe and less severe versions. A stressful environment can exacerbate the illness, he says, and taking medications is critical. Going on and off is particularly unhelpful.

This testimony is strong for the defense. The jurors are learning that Jonchuck needs six medications in order to remain stable. The doctor says Jonchuck was diagnosed schizophrenic as soon as he arrived at the treatment facility.

And though today has perhaps featured the slowest testimony so far, jurors are listening to Dr. Williams.

Jonchuck is on the highest legal dosage of Wellbutrin, an antidepressant, the doctor says. And he believes that all of the medication Jonchuck is on, he needs.

The doctor says statistics show it’s “not uncommon” that patients will exaggerate or feign illness “in the situations they’re in in our facility.”

This gets to malingering, which basically means faking symptoms. One of the state’s expert witnesses, forensic psychiatrist Emily Lazarou, has claimed Jonchuck malingers.

The doctor says he has never gotten an indication that Jonchuck is “faking it,” as attorney Williams puts it. Twice the prosecutors object to the defense’s next question about Jonchuck’s mental health condition over time, saying it’s been “asked and answered” already, and Helinger agrees. Lawyer Greg Williams, clearly frustrated, mutters something under his breath as he closes his folder and walks back to the defense table.

Claire thinks he said, “Well I guess we all agree he’s the same,” while Josh thinks he said, “Well I guess everyone agrees he’s insane.”

The judge immediately calls the lawyers to the bench and glares a hole through Williams as he approaches.

Ellis up for cross-examination asks about the memories of psychotic people.

“Their memories can be often fragmented and impartial,” the doctor says.

Ellis asks if the doctors had talked to Jonchuck about what occurred. Yes.

Jonchuck, in broad strokes, told them “he had committed the offense in respect to his daughter.”

“He recognized the fact of the event as true,” the doctor says.

Ellis establishes again that the doctor was not tasked with determining whether Jonchuck was sane at the time he dropped Phoebe.

The doctor describes Jonchuck’s state when he entered the treatment facility. “He was aware that he had significant charges against him, that his offense could possibly lead to unfavorable circumstances and outcomes."

I am so screwed, the doctor recalls Jonchuck saying.

After Dr. Williams is excused, the defense calls up another expert witness,

Heather Davis works as counseling and social services supervisor at the same North Florida treatment center.

She says she has no opinion as to Jonchuck’s sanity in this case and isn’t here to testify about that.

She was present when Jonchuck arrived at the facility in March 2015. He seemed paranoid and thought Davis could read his thoughts, and was putting thoughts into his mind. Davis says he thought his back stimulator that he carried due to a previous injury was going to be taken from him by treatment staff and that it would give them control.

“Quit reading my thoughts,” he’d say, or, “Quit telling me that,” when she hadn’t spoken.

When other people spoke in the building, Jonchuck seemed to think their comments were about him, Davis says.

“He was agitated, he wasn’t very friendly,” Davis says in describing Jonchuck’s demeanor. She recalls he seemed especially agitated with her.

Davis remembers Jonchuck was at first inconsistent in his recollection of what had happened to Phoebe.

“He would constantly ask where is she, how is she doing,” Davis remembers. He asked to talk to Phoebe. The treatment team initially gave vague answers.

They eventually decided that he was controlled enough on the medication to tell him what had happened. That was Davis’s job. She was afraid he might get aggressive as he had in past encounters —Bolan cuts Davis off and asks to approach the judge. Another bench conference. Jurors swivel around and chit chat. Jonchuck sits alone at the defense table watching the conference.

Back to questioning. Davis says that in May of 2015, she had a conversation with Jonchuck in which she took him to a picnic table in a fenced-in area and explained that Phoebe had died “from an incident that he was involved in where he dropped her off the bridge.”

“He was crying first, and I expected that, but after some point he became, like, no emotion — numb, shock, something like that,” she says.

After she told him he went back to his room. He stayed in that numb state for several days, she recalls.

Jonchuck is staring straight ahead in court as she recounts this. Davis saw Jonchuck for treatment at least two to three times a week.

Manuele next asks about the recovery team. It includes the group that processes new residents at the facility, and a few others. The team meets one a week for the first four weeks, then after that it’s once a month with residents.

When Jonchuck was admitted to the treatment facility, his security status was very low. Those with higher status have more privileges. With medication, she says, his symptoms waned to the point that he had a higher status at the facility more recently, before he was brought back to Pinellas County for trial.

Manuele asks if Jonchuck for the last 6 to 9 months was “a model resident?”

Davis says yes. Once he was “trafficking” a food item, which comes from giving food to another resident, and is not actually considered a very serious infraction.

Eventually, Davis says, Jonchuck’s psychotic symptoms diminished.

“That took time,” she says.

I highlight this section because this is what passes for strong defense testimony. The state pushes back, but barely, and the journalists and jurors seem to believe this has been a “winning” day for Jonchuck. Yet still, a great deal of testimony is devoted not just to establishing the extent of Jonchuck’s illness but to anticipate and address the question of whether or not a man who spontaneously murdered his own chid in front of a police officer and then spent years traveling between prison and a mental health facility where he experienced psychosis, memory loss, depersonalization, derealization, and paranoia is “faking it” or not.

I wonder sometimes about this fear of people “faking” insanity (as if it were an incredibly simple thing to do under as much scrutiny as Jonchuck is facing): is the worry that otherwise sane people choose to commit inexplicable crimes and then feign psychosis to get off? Or is the worry that this kind of illness exists at all? Could the otherwise ordinary life of a human being—and the lives of those around him, including, in this case, a child—be so unimaginably derailed by a bizarre malfunction in the brain? Is there some sense in which we’d rather believe they’re all faking it, a sense in which we’re more willing to countenance the existence of willful evil than acknowledge terrifying and alien insanity can be in its most extreme consequences? We have an easier time accepting the quirky-to-difficult illnesses—OCD, mild depression, moderate anxiety disorders—and the severe disorders that come with a satisfying narrative explanation (PTSD)—but there is something about violence and chaos bubbling up from what might best be described as a genetic accident which is so unsettling that we’d rather believe Jonchuck missed his calling as a world-class actor.

I’ve pushed back in nearly every post here against the idea that mental illness, to the extent that it exists at all, is just a form of quirky diversity and that its overwhelming overlap with the criminal-justice system is just stigma and misunderstanding, but I’m not confused about why everyone from the DA’s office to the National Alliance for Mental Illness acts like that’s the case. That would be a much better world to live in, a more reasonable and predictable and morally uncomplicated one. It just isn’t ours. We live in the nightmare world, the one that killed John Jonchuck’s daughter; the one that is now threatening, if the state manages to persuade the jury that it’s all a ruse, or (if they’d like to be woke about it) that it’s all “no excuse”, to effectively end Jonchuck’s life too.