TAMPA — The bar for criminal insanity is high in Florida, and Julie Schenecker, the New Tampa woman accused of killing her teenage children in 2011, hasn't met it, three mental health experts testified Wednesday.
Retained by the prosecution, they trooped into the courtroom one after the other to refute testimony from the three experts hired by defense attorneys. Just as those experts were certain that Schenecker was having a psychotic episode on Jan. 27, 2011, when she killed her children, this set was equally assured that she was in control of her actions.
"I don't think this is a close call," said Randy Otto, a psychologist who teaches at the University of South Florida. "Despite the fact she was experiencing severe mental illness, she did know that she was killing her children … and she did know that that was wrong."
Closing arguments are expected to begin this morning and the case is expected to go to jurors shortly thereafter.
Attorneys for Schenecker, 53, are waging an insanity defense, an infrequently used and rarely successful tactic that requires jurors to believe that because of her mental disorder, she couldn't distinguish right from wrong. By the time court came to an end Wednesday, jurors had heard from a total of six psychologists and psychiatrists, all of whom had spent hours with Schenecker and her writings but came away with divergent conclusions.
If jurors find Schenecker guilty as charged of two counts of first-degree murder, she will face a mandatory life sentence. If they side with the defense, she would likely spend years, if not the rest of her life, in a Florida psychiatric facility.
As they flipped through the armfuls of documents they'd brought with them to court Wednesday, the experts for the prosecution explained how they'd reached the same conclusion: Though she was deeply depressed and struggling with the worsening effects of her bipolar disorder, she was not so sick as to be legally insane.
In the days before she killed her children, Schenecker wrote in her spiral-bound notebook that she was planning "a Saturday massacre." She complained that her daughter had called her an "evil soul." She wrote: "The evil starts Thursday."
After she'd shot each teenager, once in the head, and once in the mouth, she picked up her pen again, writing an apology to her husband and saying she planned to commit suicide. "Beau went first, Calyx went second, I sure as hell would like to go third."
To forensic psychiatrist Dr. Donald Taylor, Schenecker's language couldn't have made her intentions plainer.
"She knew beforehand that what she was going to do would be considered wrong, as well as afterward," he told the jury.
Schenecker also lied to the clerk at the gun store in Oldsmar, where she purchased a revolver and ammunition several days before the killing. She told the man at the counter that she needed the gun for self-defense, as there had been several recent break-ins in her Tampa Palms neighborhood. Later, after she used the gun, she left Post-it notes on the front of her house telling people she and her family had gone to New York. Experts said her repeated attempts to deceive people were proof that she knew killing her children was not only morally wrong, it was also illegal.
Earlier this week, the mental health experts retained by the defense said that Schenecker believed she was killing her children to protect them. She thought her daughter was starting to show signs of bipolar disorder, though there was no evidence to support that. And she told doctors who interviewed her that she was convinced her son was going to be sexually molested, as she'd been when she was 6 years old. They were all going to heaven, she told police. After shooting her daughter, she'd tried to manipulate the girl's mouth to form a smile.
Countering their claims Wednesday, Otto told jurors that Schenecker was not psychotic on the day of the killings: "I'm not aware of any credible professional authority that says, essentially, every person who kills his or her children is insane," he said.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.