A Failure To Understand Legal Ethics Kills


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

20 thoughts on “A Failure To Understand Legal Ethics Kills

  1. Someday, in future America, part of TexAgg’s dream America, where Schools are not Leftist Indoctrination Camps, and Civics is taught yet again, Basic Civics would cover the Founding & all it’s related documents and philosophy. Later on, there would have to be a semester on the Judicial Process and a person’s Rights as the Accused and a person’s Rights while under arrest or prior to arrest. Another, later course would be a decent overview of the Legal Profession – which would include such topics as what you just discussed.

  2. Jack — No more animal or child cruelty posts please. I can’t go to bed now.

    I am furious at this lawyer — not the police. She should have said something like, “Yes, I am God. He commands you to give me your child and leave my office now and run to the nearest hospital.” I would have happily stood before the Bar Committee defending my actions if it meant that I had saved a child’s life.

    • Easy to say Beth from the safety of your home/office/wherever. She had to be concerned for her safety and her staff as well. This most likely is a split second decision. Get the individual out and call the authorities.

      • But Jonchuck asked if he could leave the child there while he went to the church and she told him no. Since she had strong suspisicions he may harm her, that was her chance to save her! She instead was thinking about what if he accused me of kidnapping. That could have been easily disproven and the child would be alive. Sometimes lawyers need to act when they see it instead of send them away THEN act.

  3. Then there’s the off chance she didn’t know she was committing a serious breach of professional ethics for a greater ethical need, and merely benefited from Moral Luck in that her ignorance was irrelevant to the final decision that yes, authorities had to be notified.

    But there’s no evidence she didn’t know. Just tossing it out as a 1% chance, but worthy of a passing thought.

  4. Tragic. Hard however to see how the lawyer could have done more, unless the child was clearly injured or hurt in her presence. It seems the police did well to follow up so quickly. A hard judgment for them. They’d have needed very strong grounds to arrest the father and/or take child into care; not just the reported view from the lawyer as per the telephone call. Presumably the priest had a view too? Others could or should surely have noticed the father’s insanity and taken steps to safeguard the child – neighbours, relatives, medics, friends?

    • Moral luck. It could have all worked out right, but didn’t. Now hindsight bias sets in. If the lawyer felt that the father was sufficient danger that she was justified in using the rare confidentiality exception, then he was enough of a danger to try to keep him in her office or to try to get the girl away from him. That’s what she thinks, too. Now.

      • Did she not have a responsibility to herself and her staff to consider their safety as well? What’s to say he wouldn’t have harmed them if they forcibly tried to keep the girl. This lawyer did the right and only thing she could have. Got the individual out of her office, and contacted both 911 and DCF in order to protect the child. Any other conclusion is merely arm chair quarterbacking from the safety of your computer screen.

        • Do I detect personal connection to the story?

          I don’t think anyone suggested jumping straight to forcible detention…

          Certainly as a last resort if that’s what it looked like needing. However one can stall and stall.

            • if the situation clearly fleshes out to be dangerous, one can make their decisions then. If sequestering the girl at possible risk of violence seems apt then so be it.

              • Absolutely there’s a personal connection. I know the situation intimately and I can promise you the decisions made were the right ones. It’s very easy in hindsight to recommend stalling tactics, but in the heat of the moment this was the right call and the only call to be made..

                • Armchair Quarterbacking

                  This is a fair topic to broach, but let’s be fair to Beth and anyone else who you are attacking with your accusations. Up front, it is only unfair to “armchair quarterback” when you bring into judgement, that is to make a moral pronouncement, on someone’s performance, based on hindsight bias. I don’t think Beth did this, nor anyone else. I don’t think they considered Torres to be some moral or ethical dastard for making the decision she made.

                  We all acknowledge that in pinch decisions, in which time available to consider all options is reduced to zero, one must quickly pick what seems to be the best available option from time-limited choices. We extend that benefit to Torres. But that doesn’t stop us, and rightfully so, from picking apart the scenario, FREE FROM CONDEMNING TORRES, from an unbiased situation. You see, this is how we learn and create rules in life to help us govern our own decisions. To condemn *fair* “armchair quarterbacking” is to condemn learning from situations and compelling us to “wing” life as it goes and not learn from anyone’s advice.

                  I don’t see any condemnation of the original actor in Beth’s or anyone else’s analysis. It is COMPLETELY fair to “armchair quarterback” a situation when you don’t condemn an actor (otherwise innocent), but merely analyze what could have been done better…leading therefore to a guide which helps future situations like this.

                  You see, if we don’t do these non-judgemental “quarterbackings”, or as the Army calls them “After Action Reviews”, we will never be able to learn, establish ethical protocols, or teach future individuals what the best action to take is…

                  Are we to stop that? Your protest would imply we should…

                  Yes, maybe Gienevee Torres did make the “right” snap decision given the small amount of time she had available and the tiny amount of information available and the tiny tiny tiny amount of ethical training she had available….

                  But think what she could have done if her “tool box” of ethics had been instinctively trained to be MORE diverse? Who knows… maybe a living girl and a man receiving the treatment he needs… maybe a completely dead office staff after a rampage….

                  Don’t decry those philosophizing about it, when they haven’t condemned the Principal (and they haven’t…at least not from what I read of Beth’s or anyone else’s)

                • Also, it’s very good that you disclosed your personal involvement with the situation. It provides a very valuable perspective, even though tempered with considerable bias.

  5. This kills me, has me in tears and knots. Have any of you read the longer version of this poor child’s life story? Whenever I see something like this, I can’t help but imagine my own kids in the place of these innocent lambs. Still, there’s another side of this that has to be considered, and that’s the need to safeguard the rights of parents and the sanctity of the home. As horrible as this is, there are also the very troubling stories of persecution and torn families at the hands of overzealous social workers and judges. It’s too bad that the social fields have a tendency to draw busybodies to their ranks, and we can’t trust them with somewhat broader discretion. What’s scary to me is that the busybodies who will remain nameless will no doubt push for Phoebe’s law, and it will be perverted into something that reaches way beyond anything that could have possibly prevented this.

    • This kills me, has me in tears and knots. Have any of you read the longer version of this poor child’s life story?
      Me, too.
      It’s simply heartbreaking.

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