Wednesday, January 17, 2018
News Roundup

Carlton: If Schenecker is too crazy to execute, is she too crazy to convict?

To do what she did to her children three years ago, Julie Schenecker must have been insane. Out of her mind. Unable to know right from wrong.

Or, the evidence will show, she wasn't.

The case is stunning in how little sense it makes even now: 13-year-old Beau, shot in the family van, his 16-year-old sister, Calyx, killed with the same .38-caliber pistol as she did her homework in their upscale Tampa Palms home.

So there was TV legal mouthpiece Nancy Grace this month, in full howling outrage after Hillsborough County prosecutors took the death penalty off the table, seeking a life sentence for Schenecker instead.

"Now mommy claims she's" — air quotes here — " 'crazy!' " Grace told viewers. "Crazy like a fox! And the state backs off the death penalty. Tonight, no justice for Calyx and Beau!"

That high-volume and incendiary rhetoric aside, it's a reasonable question.

Why no death penalty for crimes this horrendous?

Another one: If Schenecker — trembling, wild-eyed and looking crazy as crazy gets when she was arrested — is too mentally ill to execute, is she also not guilty by reason of insanity, as her attorneys will argue?

Even in an imperfect court system, we may be able to find measured answers to both.

Prosecutors can have differing philosophies. Some tend to tee up the highest charges in the worst cases and let jurors, and later appeals courts, sort them out.

Others make the tough calls before going to trial — because it's their job, and because it could spare everyone the hell of retrying — and reliving — a terrible case.

Did Schenecker's case have any aggravating circumstances on which to base a death sentence? Yes — one of them being that the victims, her children, were particularly vulnerable because she had authority over them as their mother.

But would a death sentence survive the close review these kinds of cases get from the Florida Supreme Court?

Prosecutors considered reports from their own experts and determined that the mitigating evidence — Schenecker's extensive mental health issues — was "overwhelming."

And no death penalty makes sense.

But being mentally ill is not the same as being not guilty by reason of insanity.

Schenecker told detectives she was taking perhaps a dozen medications and had spent weeks in bed. She was being treated for bipolar disorder, depression and substance abuse.

And there's the center of this case: Mentally ill or not, did she know right from wrong?

What will a jury make of police recordings afterward in which she asks, "Hey, you guys, are you leaving the kids where they lay?"

But also, "Are my kids coming in later?"

We can expect to see the strange, sometimes incoherent Schenecker after her arrest juxtaposed with the fact that she bought the gun days before the shooting, indicating a plan. And that police say she reported that her children had been talking back and mouthy, and that she indicated she planned to kill them and then herself.

Barring delay, the fate of Julie Schenecker falls to a jury beginning April 28 — a decision you hope can be made with neither outrage nor naivete, but for what justice turns out to be.

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