For Schenecker jury, a high-stakes course in the mysteries of mental illness

Published May 18, 2014

TAMPA — Is she insane?

Julie Shenecker, with 20 years of medical records that detail a struggle against a variety of severe mental illnesses, killed her own teen children. She shot them, as she wrote, in the "mouthy mouth," covered them with blankets, manipulated her daughter's lifeless lips into a smile. She wanted to protect them from molestation, and from inheriting her own debilitating brain disease. She wanted to kill herself, so they could live safely and eternally together in heaven.

Clearly insane?

But does an insane woman buy a gun and detail her plans for a "massacre" in her journal? Does she leave sticky notes on the door telling neighbors she and the kids were in New York, so friends wouldn't find their bodies? Does she email her overseas husband, "Get home soon, we're waiting for you?" Does she express remorse when the police show up, telling them that murdering her offspring was the most horrible thing she had ever done?

Are those the actions of an insane person?

Sorting that out is now the jury's burden.

They've heard hours of expert testimony from folks whose job it is to peer inside the mind of a killer, and their opinions are opposed.

Insane, said the defense's experts.

She was delusional. Psychotic. She had paranoid ideations.

She heard a turned-off television talking. She was convinced she had a brain tumor and didn't believe the clear scans. She spent nine months in a government in-patient experiment — called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation — where they fitted her with a headdress and sent magnetic surges through her skull. When manic, she wanted to invent a UV sterilizer, baby alarms and different types of water. She went on secret gambling sprees. She thought she was being filmed by hidden cameras. She had a bizarre desire to get pregnant at age 49 using DNA collected from her doctor's comb. She wanted to get pregnant and give the baby up for adoption to atone for a past abortion.

Filicide, killing the children she loved, the children she breast-fed, was the product of a damaged and irrational mind. Evidence? She thought about how she needed to wash her soon-to-be-dead son's soccer jersey because he had a game on Saturday. And after, she wondered aloud if it was okay for her to attend the memorial service for the kids she killed if she dyed her hair and sat in the back row.

"I think, without a doubt, she was insane at the time of the shooting and in the week prior," said Dr. Eldra Solomon, testifying for the defense.

"She knew what she was doing. She did not know that it was wrong," said Dr. Michael Maher. "She believed that she was protecting her children from something terrifying. She felt that it was part of her necessary duty as a mother to do this."

Sane, said the prosecution's experts.

"The evil starts Thursday," she had written in her notebook. "Calyx gets it first," she had written.

That's evidence of a plan, that she knew what she was doing, the prosecution's doctors said.

She lied to the gun shop owner when she was trying to buy a weapon, told them it was because a spate of burglaries in the New Tampa neighborhood. She told detectives she didn't want to go to jail.

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That's evidence, the doctors said, that she knew what she was doing was wrong.

"That she wrote that she's going to heaven reflects an appreciation of death," said Dr. Randy Otto. And her regret, he said, points to knowledge of wrongfulness.

"I didn't see clear evidence of psychotic behavior," he said. "I saw no references to delusions."

But sane women don't kill their children, the defense's experts said.

"I don't think there's any basis in reality for that," Otto said.

It's not unusual for forensic psychiatrists to review a case and have radically different opinions. The experts had access to the same basic information, but interviewed Schenecker at different times, talked to different people who knew her and reviewed a variety of records.

But now, after two weeks of trial, a jury must decide who to believe. And its decision will likely mean Schenecker, 53, will spend the rest of her life in prison or, if she is acquitted, in a secure psychiatric facility.

"The fact that you have so many experts rendering so many opinions in that case suggests that we don't have an exact science here," said Charles Patrick Ewing, a forensic psychologist, attorney and professor at the University at Buffalo Law School, who wrote Insanity: Murder, Madness and the Law.

Improvements in technology and our understanding of how the brain works has yet to make much difference in the courts, where juries must still rely on experts to make judgments on a defendant's mental state. That is, unless there's demonstrable evidence of a malady — a brain tumor, for instance. Ewing, who is not connected to the Schenecker trial, remembers a case he worked in which a man accused of killing a child had a brain scan that showed he had no corpus callosum. The halves of his brain weren't really connected. With that kind of evidence, prosecutors agreed the man was insane.

But those cases are a small fraction of insanity defenses, which are used in less than 1 percent of criminal cases.

Bipolar disorder with psychotic features, with which Schenecker was routinely diagnosed, is not tangible like a physical brain defect. So jurors are asked to apply a standard known as the M'Naghten rule, established in England in 1843: a defendant shouldn't be held responsible for his actions if he could not tell that his actions were wrong at the time he committed them. And the burden of proof is on the defendant to prove she's insane.

"The jury has to be befuddled because if these experts can't agree, how can we agree?" said Ewing. "It's educated guesswork. That's what the experts are really offering to the courts and the jury. It may or may not be any better than what lay jurors can intuit themselves."

If they're confused, Ewing said, research shows they'll likely disregard the expert testimony.

And if they don't take the word of the experts, he said, jurors are stuck with a moral question.

Does Julie Schenecker deserve to be punished?

Ben Montgomery can be reached at or 727-893-8650.