Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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

Julie Schenecker was in court for a disposition hearing on Oct. 11, 2013. Barring delays, the case is set for trial April 28.


Julie Schenecker was in court for a disposition hearing on Oct. 11, 2013. Barring delays, the case is set for trial April 28.

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.

Carlton: If Schenecker is too crazy to execute, is she too crazy to convict? 04/11/14 [Last modified: Monday, May 5, 2014 11:41am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Fatal hit and run closes section of Nebraska Avenue


    TAMPA — Police are investigating a fatal hit and run crash early Sunday morning on Nebraska Avenue.

  2. Sunday Conversation: Roberto Torres talks immigration

    Human Interest


    Roberto Torres stands as one of the city's most impressive rising entrepreneurs. The owner of Blind Tiger Cafes, Black & Denim clothing company and CoWork Ybor has expanded his reach with locations at Tampa International Airport and The Morrison, a new mixed use development in the SoHo District. Torres, …

    Roberto Torres receives his American Dream award from U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor on Aug. 15.
  3. Tampa police officer shoots man in Ybor


    A Tampa police officer shot a man while investigating a trespassing call at a vacant house on the eastern edge Ybor City early this morning, police officials said.

    Daniel Olinger, 68, was shot by an officer investigating a tresspassing call early Sunday morning. [Tampa Police]
  4. Comedian and activist Dick Gregory dies at 84


    The comedian Dick Gregory rose to national prominence in the early 1960s as a black satirist whose audacious style of humor was biting, subversive and topical, mostly centered on current events, politics and above all, racial tensions. His trademark was the searing punchline.

    Dick Gregory, a comedian, activist and author, died Saturday. [Tribune News Service, 2011]