Sunday, June 24, 2018
News Roundup

Jury seated in Julie Schenecker murder trial

TAMPA — The strawberry farmer and divorced father of three was in. So, too, was the man who said he was one credit away from a degree in criminal justice.

After five days of painstaking questioning by attorneys, a jury was seated Friday for the trial of Julie Schenecker, the New Tampa woman accused of murdering her two teenage children in 2011.

The jurors will decide whether Schenecker, 53, knowingly plotted to kill her children or was insane at the time, unable to tell right from wrong. She faces two counts of first-degree murder, a charge that carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Her trial begins Monday morning and is expected to last two weeks. Defense attorneys are planning to mount an insanity defense.

Schenecker's fate rests in the hands of an eclectic jury. The 12 jurors and four alternates include seven women and nine men, three of whom are African-American. About half of the jurors have children.

Within the group is a grandmother who draws patients' blood at a local hospital, a Hills­borough Area Regional Transit bus driver with a daughter, and a U.S. Postal Service worker who told attorneys: "I firmly believe in the insanity defense."

The former military man who said he couldn't bring himself to declare someone not guilty by reason of insanity was excused. So was the man who'd grown up in Chicago, "where there's nothing but violence," and couldn't bear to look at photographs of the victims.

To find potential jurors who hadn't been exposed to the heavy media coverage the case had received, about 250 people were sent summonses. Attorneys grilled them repeatedly, trying to gauge what they thought about mental illness and whether they could endorse an insanity defense, if the evidence supported it. Prospective jurors were also asked if they owned guns and if they were familiar with Florida's laws regulating firearm purchases.

Twice, they were asked whether they could be fair to Schenecker, knowing the victims in the case were a 16-year-old and a 13-year-old.

The question made two female jurors cry Thursday. They were excused, as were countless others, many of them parents who admitted they couldn't be impartial. Still others were sent home after they told attorneys that, based on what they'd seen on television or read in the newspaper, they believed Schenecker was guilty.

Police say Schenecker shot her son, Beau, in the family's van after taking him home from soccer practice. She's accused of shooting her daughter, Calyx, in the head while the girl was working on her homework upstairs in the family's home.

Fueling the prosecution's claim that she planned the murders, police say Schenecker bought a revolver days before the children were killed, returning after the three-day mandatory waiting period to pick it up. Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.

Previously released evidence has painted a partial picture of Schenecker's struggles with depression and bipolar disorder. A fuller understanding will likely emerge at the trial — both sides have retained psychologists to testify on her state of mind.

Though many of the jurors chosen for the trial told attorneys they could support an insanity defense, some were less definitive.

Said one man: "Just because you're mentally ill doesn't mean you have to commit a crime."

As the selection process came to a close and the agreed-upon jurors' numbers were read aloud, the judge asked Schenecker if she was satisfied.

"Very," she said.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354. Follow her on Twitter at @annamphillips.

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