This week, John Jonchuck arrived at his lawyer Genevieve Torres’s office in Tampa, Florida dressed in his pajamas. He had his 5-year old daughter Phoebe with him.
Torres’s new client had a history of arrests for domestic battery, driving under the influence, and passing fraudulent checks. Jonchuck told her he had cared for Phoebe for two years, and asked Torres to file papers that day so he could have full legal custody of his daughter.
There were clues, however, that indicated to Torres that something was amiss….the pajamas, for example. Then her client kept saying that she was God, the Creator. When he asked her to read a Bible in Swedish, and told the lawyer to come with him to St. Paul’s Catholic Church to baptize him, she was pretty much sure he was stark, raving mad, and that his daughter was in peril—especially when he left her office with the ominous statement, “Don’t file the paperwork. It’s not going to matter anymore.”
Torres called 911, saying that she was his lawyer, and that she believed the little girl wasn’t safe. “He’s out of his mind, and he has a minor child with him driving to the church now,” Torres explained. Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies found Jonchuck and Phoebe at the church, where he was meeting with a priest .Jonchuck told them God had spoken to him in the past, according to a Sheriff’s Office report. Deputies determined that he was not a danger to himself or Phoebe.
Thirteen hours later, Jonchuck dropped Phoebe off Tampa’s Sunshine Skyway bridge, and she drowned in the dark waters below.
Here’s the takeaway: lawyers are not permitted under the ethics rules to report on their clients the way Genevieve did unless they are convinced that someone is about to be seriously hurt. She couldn’t do it just to be on the safe side. Such a report could have adversely affected Jonchuck’s chances of getting custody. As a lawyer, she needed to be certain, or nearly so, that this man was an imminent risk to himself or his child, to make that 911 call. If she made the call without very powerful reasons, she would face possible bar discipline for violating a client confidence. If the police understood that, might they have taken the threat more seriously? I think so. For a lawyer to report a client is very, very serious, a momentous act carrying serious professional risk. That alone, in my opinion, should have compelled them to take custody of Jonchuck and have him examined. Maybe the 911 operator didn’t make it clear that the call came from his lawyer. Maybe—probably—the police had no idea that lawyers can’t normally make such calls, and thus need to be taken especially seriously.
Phoebe Jonchuck may have been a victim of the rampant public ignorance of lawyers’ ethical obligations to their clients.
What a stupid reason to die.
Source: ABA Journal
Facts: Tampa Bay.com