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Setting up battle of mental health experts, Schenecker attorneys claim insanity as defense

TAMPA — Before the murders, she bought a gun. She left a note about "the massacre." She sent a suicidal-sounding e-mail and incoherent text messages saying she might need help that day.

Did her actions show Julie Schenecker planned and reflected on killing her two children? Or was she out of her mind?

On Friday, the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office announced it would seek the death penalty against Schenecker, charged with first-degree murder in the Jan. 27 shooting deaths of her 16-year-old daughter, Calyx, and 13-year-old son, Beau.

Now Schenecker's attorneys have filed notice they will use insanity as her defense, a move that was expected. They say she suffers from "a bipolar disorder with psychotic features."

The filings show the murder case will be a battle of mental health experts, say local lawyers not connected with the case.

"The state will argue that the planning shows premeditation and therefore that she was sane at the time of the killings," said Tampa lawyer John Fitzgibbons. "The defense, I am certain, will argue that some planning can certainly take place by an insane individual."

At the time of the shootings, Schenecker was being treated for depression, bipolar disorder and substance abuse, court records show. Detectives found numerous prescribed medications in the house.

Neither side has got it easy.

Prosecutors must present aggravating factors in support of the death penalty. St. Petersburg lawyer Robert Heyman said he thinks that will be hard to do, given Schenecker's lack of a criminal record and evidence of her psychological history.

"Death might be on the table but with all the psychological issues it's going to be an uphill battle," he said. "Death is given to the cold, calculating criminal. … Not to a mother who commits a horrendous crime."

Schenecker's attorneys, too, could have a hard time proving insanity, a defense that is difficult to meet in the legal sense — no matter how insane the crime, said Cheryl Meyer, a professor at Ohio's Wright State University who has studied mothers accused of killing their children.

In Florida, defendants must show that because of a mental defect they either did not know what they were doing or did not know it was wrong.

Andrea Yates, the Texas mother convicted of drowning her children, had a long history of mental illness. In her first trial, the jury rejected her insanity argument and found her guilty on murder charges. The convictions were later thrown out, and Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity at a second trial.

But, Meyer said, "overall the insanity defense is not successful."

Tampa defense lawyer Grady Irvin said the public still doesn't know what led up to the killings. Still unknown, he said, are many of the family dynamics that could play into an insanity defense.

Meyer said Schenecker's attorneys could make a strong case against the death penalty, arguing their client is a woman already struggling with serious mental problems, trying to raise teenagers with a military husband who was frequently deployed.

She acknowledged plenty of mothers face such difficult circumstances and don't kill their children. But why do they not cross that line?

"What puts her in Category A and everybody else in Category B? We don't know who they are in Category B," she said. "We don't know what pushes you over."

Times staff writer John Barry contributed to this report.

Setting up battle of mental health experts, Schenecker attorneys claim insanity as defense 08/15/11 [Last modified: Monday, August 15, 2011 10:21pm]
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