TAMPA — It has been more than a decade since a woman shot and killed her two teenage children in their Tampa Palms home.
A mother was led to jail.
A father grieved. A community rallied as he sought to honor his children’s memory.
A jury would reject Julie Schenecker’s insanity defense, finding her guilty of murder in the deaths of Calyx, 16, and Beau, 13. She was given two life prison sentences.
This week, a door opened on the past and through it stepped Schenecker, who arrived a little before 3 p.m. Monday at the Orient Road Jail.
Schenecker, 61, is back in town for a March court hearing to address whether she should receive a new trial. It comes after Schenecker, in an appeal she filed herself, argued that the public defenders in her 2014 trial were ineffective in representing her.
She made more than 20 legal claims. They include an argument that lawyers should have asked to move her trial out of Hillsborough County because, she says, extensive local news coverage tainted the jury. She also says her defense did not present particular pieces of evidence or call certain witnesses who could have bolstered her insanity defense.
In a written response to Schenecker’s appeals, state prosecutors conceded that a hearing is necessary to address some of the claims.
Judge Michelle Sisco set a hearing for March 10 and ordered that Schenecker return to court. She has been held since 2014 at the Lowell Correctional Institution Annex, a women’s prison near Ocala. A new attorney has been appointed to represent her.
Such post-trial appeals are not unusual. Defense lawyers expect them.
“This is something that, as a criminal defense lawyer, you anticipate because it is an opportunity for a client to have another court look at their case,” said Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt. “I’m confident the work we did was good work. And I think the testimony of my attorneys will clearly show how much work and effort went to the defense of Ms. Schenecker.”
The Schenecker case stands among the most notorious in Tampa history. On Jan. 28, 2011, Tampa police were called to a welfare check at the family’s Tampa Palms home. Inside, officers found the bodies of both children, who had been shot. They found Schenecker alive, but dazed from the effects of drugs, on the home’s swimming pool lanai.
In an interview with detectives, she admitted that she shot the children, but also asked: “Are my kids coming in later?”
Her then-husband, Army Col. Parker Schenecker, was on a military deployment overseas at the time. He soon returned home and was granted a quick divorce.
At trial, Schenecker’s attorneys presented testimony about her mental health history and use of antidepressants and mood stabilizers. They argued that she was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of her actions. Prosecutors acknowledged Schenecker’s history of mental illness but pointed to a spiral notebook, in which she had written her plans to kill her children, as evidence that she knew what she was doing.
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Jurors interviewed after the trial said her writings convinced them she was guilty.
An appeals court affirmed Schenecker’s conviction and sentence in 2016.
In her new appeals, she argues that heavy local news coverage tainted the jury panel, noting that some jurors acknowledged they had heard about the case.
She also says that her lawyers were ineffective for not challenging her competency to stand trial. She was examined by a number of psychological experts in preparation for her insanity defense. But the question of whether she had a rational understanding of the court proceedings was not raised. Schenecker asserts that she was confused during portions of the trial, had difficulty communicating with her lawyers, and at one point had an emotional breakdown.
She also claims that her lawyers failed to call a number of witnesses who could have bolstered her insanity defense. The witnesses include herself. Schenecker wanted to testify in her defense, she wrote, but was urged not to do so. She claims one lawyer warned that the prosecutor would “eat her alive.”
Nevertheless, she believes if she had testified, the jury would have had a better understanding of her state of mind.