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Defense psychologist: Schenecker 'without a doubt' insane during killings

Dr. Michael Maher, a psychiatrist who evaluated Julie Schenecker at the request of her attorneys, testifies during her murder trial Monday. Her mental illness is incurable, he said.
Published May 13, 2014

TAMPA — The day she bought the gun she would use to kill her children, Julie Schenecker woke up a little less depressed than usual. She would later tell a psychiatrist that she'd had her first clear thought in weeks: She would shoot herself and her two teenagers, and they would all go to heaven together.

What to Schenecker felt like a moment of blue-skied clarity was the most horrifying psychotic episode of her life, Dr. Eldra Solomon testified in her murder trial on Monday. Retained by Schenecker's attorneys to evaluate her, the psychologist pronounced the 53-year-old New Tampa woman insane at the time of the killings, as well as the week before, when she drove miles out of her way to purchase a .38-caliber revolver.

"People who are not in a psychotic state do not kill their children," Solomon told the jury. "Even psychopaths don't kill their children."

As the trial entered its second week of testimony, attorneys for Schenecker called on two mental health experts to address the central question in this first-degree murder trial — whether the killings were premeditated, or the work of a woman who didn't know right from wrong. Schenecker's defense falls in the latter camp. Her attorneys are waging an insanity defense and banking that jurors will be persuaded by the testimony of a set of PhDs who have spent hours observing the defendant. Charged with two counts of first-degree murder, she faces life in prison if convicted.

Beginning in January 2011, when Schenecker was found asleep in a bloody bathrobe, her children dead upstairs, Solomon met with her nine times, spending upwards of 20 hours interviewing her. In contrast to prosecutors' portrayal of Schenecker as a scheming and brilliant former Army intelligence officer who killed out of anger, Solomon saw a woman whose adult life has been shaped by bipolar disorder. She concluded that for the last decade, Schenecker had experienced a series of psychotic breaks that became more frequent and extreme as she aged.

During a nine-month hospitalization at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland, Schenecker's doctors noted in her medical record that she had a "fixed false belief" that a brain tumor was causing her depression. Scans were done on her brain and nothing was found. Later, in 2009, while being treated at the University of South Florida, she expressed a desire to take her psychiatrist's comb and use his DNA to impregnate herself.

In 2011, after she'd been placed in Falkenburg Road Jail, Schenecker announced that she wanted to attend her children's funeral. She would buy a plane ticket, it was that simple. When a psychiatrist said that her family would likely object, she countered that no one would recognize her if she dyed her hair and sat in the back. But she was also confused, Solomon said. Why wouldn't her family want her there? she wondered.

In jail, and on suicide watch, there were days when Schenecker knew what she had done, Solomon said. But there were other times when she asked after her children, unaware that they'd died at her hand.

For someone who managed to give the impression that she had her life under control, Schenecker had a long documented history of mental illness.

From the time she entered the Army immediately out of college, she began experiencing manic highs and crushing depression, which she hid by taking time off and holing up in hotel rooms until the fog lifted. Doctors wrote prescriptions for potent drug cocktails, combinations of mood stabilizers, antidepressants, anti-anxiety pills, and anti-psychotic drugs.

"She was treated with very powerful medications of a diverse range," said Dr. Michael Maher, a psychiatrist who evaluated Schenecker at the request of her attorneys and also determined that she was insane at the time of the killings. "Even with that, this was not an illness that was curable and much of the time they couldn't even control her symptoms."

In their cross-examination, prosecutors tore into the testimony of the two mental-health experts with relish. They questioned if Solomon had come prepared for the case and implied that Maher was a hired gun for defense attorneys. Turning to their favorite line of argument, they took the jury back to the Saturday in January 2011 when Schenecker drove 27 miles to Oldsmar to purchase a gun and ammunition. Lying outright, she told the man working the counter at Lock N Load that there had been a rash of break-ins in her neighborhood and she needed the gun for self-defense.

"On some level, this defendant was able to understand that someone would think it was wrong for her to buy the gun and kill her kids," said Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner. And if she knew that society would regard it as a crime, then she wouldn't meet the criteria for legal insanity, he said.

Maher disagreed. Schenecker thought that if people understood her fear that her children would also become bipolar, they would agree with her. "And that's crazy," he said. "That's really out of touch with reality."

Reminding jurors that Schenecker had a problem with alcohol abuse, prosecutors pointed out that she willfully violated every piece of medical advice she got not to mix alcohol and prescription medication. It wasn't that she couldn't follow doctors' orders, they said, she chose not to. If she'd fallen into a drug-induced haze, it was of her own doing.

Again, Maher tried to deflate their argument.

"The problem here is the mental illness," he said. "It's not whether she's taking her drugs exactly right."

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813)226-3354. Follow her on Twitter at @annamphillips

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