TAMPA — Three years after saying they would seek the death penalty against a New Tampa woman accused of fatally shooting her two children, prosecutors have reversed course and will seek a sentence of life without parole.
Julie Schenecker's mental health issues are so severe that the state Supreme Court would not uphold a death sentence, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office said Tuesday. At the same time, they remain unconvinced that Schenecker is not guilty by reason of insanity, the defense that her attorneys will use at trial later this month.
"After being provided overwhelming evidence of mitigation due to the mental health issues of the defendant, it was determined that the imposition of the death penalty in this case would not withstand the scrutiny of the Florida Supreme Court," Hillsborough state attorney spokesman Mark Cox said in a written statement.
Prosecutors say Schenecker, 53, shot her two children, Calyx and Beau, at their Tampa Palms home on Jan. 27, 2011. She shot her 13-year-old son after driving him home from soccer practice, then walked upstairs and shot her daughter Calyx, 16, as she was doing homework, police said.
Schenecker, who has a history of mental illness, told police she was tired of them talking back.
Her attorneys could not be reached for comment Tuesday. They have said Schenecker was being treated for depression, bipolar disorder and substance abuse at the time of the shootings. Her trial is scheduled for April 28.
Emails between Schenecker and her then-husband, Parker Schenecker, show that their children didn't want her to drive them anymore after she got into a car crash while drunk and high on OxyContin. She went to a drug rehabilitation center but returned home lethargic and refused to get out of bed, according to emails.
In the hours after her children's deaths, Schenecker sent her family garbled messages that could only have made sense to her and urged Parker to come home from his Army deployment in Qatar.
"it's really difficult and i'm so sickmentally," she wrote. "i will end this soon.though i am at my wits end."
The Scheneckers got divorced after the killings. Parker Schenecker said through a spokeswoman Tuesday that he had no objections to prosecutors' decision.
"I will trust that the state attorney's decision not to pursue the death penalty in their case against my ex-wife is the best way for them to defend my children Calyx and Beau in the upcoming proceedings and ensure their voices are heard through the legal system," said Schenecker, a retired Army colonel.
Attorneys familiar with death penalty cases said the state attorney's decision is not surprising. Schenecker's history of mental health problems would have weighed heavily in prosecutors' decisionmaking and might have influenced the jury.
"Just based on what I've read about her background and her history of mental illness, I don't know that a jury would give her the death penalty," said Lyann Goudie, a Tampa criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor. "It would depend on the egregiousness of it all, if they really believed it was a premeditated killing."
In Schenecker, jurors might see a woman who drove to Lock N Load in Oldsmar to buy a gun and returned three days later to pick it up at the end of the waiting period. Or they might see the Schenecker who has, in past court appearances, presented as an almost ghostly figure, disconnected from the proceedings around her and their bearing on her future.
"When you compare this to other cases and past experience … you realize this is not an appropriate death penalty case," said Tampa criminal defense attorney Joe Episcopo. "I doubt very much she'd get the death penalty."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.