For New Tampa mother accused of murder, insanity defense a long shot

Julie Schenecker, shown at a hearing in August, is expected to use an insanity defense when her trial on charges of murdering her two children begins Monday.
Julie Schenecker, shown at a hearing in August, is expected to use an insanity defense when her trial on charges of murdering her two children begins Monday.
Published May 5, 2014

TAMPA — Eyes wide with animal fright, Julie Schenecker emerged from police headquarters in January 2011 looking wild, the portrait of an insanity defense waiting to be made.

She'd been found lying on the patio of her New Tampa home, blood on her hands and bathrobe, and traces of fine black powder on her face. Her 16-year-old daughter Calyx was upstairs, where police said Schenecker shot her twice in the head. In the family's van was Beau, her 13-year-old son, fatally shot and still belted into the passenger seat.

Schenecker, 53, had no criminal record but she had a lengthy history of severe depression and bipolar disorder. She'd been on antipsychotic drugs long enough to develop a condition that made her whole body shake and twitch. Hours after her children were killed, she referred to them as if they were alive, asking detectives: "Are my kids coming in later?"

In the weeks after she was charged with murdering Calyx and Beau, Schenecker's attorneys didn't spend a lot of time going over their options for her defense. Rather, they talked about the lack of options. Schenecker had to be insane, they reasoned, selecting a defense that could place her in a psychiatric facility for years, and possibly the rest of her life. Her trial begins Monday in Hillsborough circuit court.

But Schenecker's odds of receiving a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity are incredibly poor.

Stories of juries rejecting insanity defenses for violent schizophrenics and defendants who have been in and out of mental hospitals are legion. Asked to recall the last time a Hillsborough jury acquitted someone by reason of insanity, local attorneys and judges named a case more than two decades old.

"Most people think it's a lot of hocus pocus," said Tampa defense attorney Barry Cohen, who successfully used the insanity defense in a 1990 case. Cohen's client, Dorothy Dianne Rose, was accused of strangling her two toddlers with a bathrobe sash, an act of desperation and lunacy that experts said was motivated by fear that her estranged husband would take the children away from her.

But Rose's fate was never in a jury's hands; a judge declared her insane. The best-known example of a successful insanity defense came earlier that same year, when prosecutors put college student Claire Moritt on trial for drowning her newborn son in a dormitory toilet. Jurors found her criminally insane, convinced by experts who said Moritt was unaware she was pregnant and went into shock during the delivery.

"Our system is set up to say you're not legally responsible if you're not in the right frame of mind," Cohen said. "The art is in making people understand it's a legitimate defense."

Though habitual readers of Florida headlines might say otherwise, the bar for criminal insanity here is high. To reach it, Schenecker will have to pass the M'Naghten standard, a commonly used test that asks whether she knew what she was doing, and if she knew, whether she understood it was wrong.

Insanity laws vary by state, and because the defense is politically unpopular, four states have done away with it entirely. Various others use another standard developed by the American Law Institute, that experts consider easier to meet.

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"I tell my students when I teach this, you have to be crazy to plead insanity," said Charles P. Ewing, a forensic psychologist, lawyer and professor at the SUNY Buffalo Law School. Jurors enter courtrooms with "the stereotype of the raving lunatic," Ewing said. If the defendant seated before them is well-groomed and appears calm, as medicated defendants often do, jurors are loath to pronounce them insane.

That could be a problem for Schenecker, whose first court appearances were notable for her seeming detachment from everything around her. But at a hearing earlier this month, she sat straight-backed at the defense table, slipping her glasses on and off to better examine evidence.

"Insanity is a legal concept and the law loves bright lines," said Cheryl L. Meyer, a professor of psychology at Wright State University, who has studied mothers who kill their children.

"Psychology is based on everything in between and it's sometimes not a very happy marriage," Meyer said.

Schenecker could be helped by prosecutors' recent decision to seek a life sentence instead of the death penalty, because of her history of mental illness. By waiving that right, the prosecution has forfeited what's typically seen as a significant advantage: a jury open to the possibility of sentencing someone to death. Such juries are commonly viewed as more likely to convict.

To bolster their argument that she knew what she was doing, prosecutors are likely to use the fact that Schenecker bought a revolver days before the Jan. 27 murders. Police have said she wrote in a note that the mandatory three-day waiting period would "delay the massacre." Afterwards, she told police she was tired of her children talking back.

But mentally ill people can still make plans, experts testifying in insanity cases have argued in the past and are likely to argue again. For Schenecker, the question will not be whether she was sick, it will be whether she was sick enough.

"It's a tough sell," Cohen said. "But who the hell would kill their children in their right mind?"

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at or (813) 226-3354.