TAMPA — Julie Schenecker was mentally ill but knew what she was doing when she killed her two teen-aged children, prosecution experts testified on Wednesday.
Three mental health experts took the stand to rebut defense expert testimony that Schenecker was legally insane because she didn’t understand what she did was wrong when she shot Calyx, 16, and Beau, 13, in the head on Jan. 27, 2011.
The trial has become a battle of experts trying to peer into Schenecker’s mind to glean what she was thinking when she killed her children.
Each side has presented three experts. All agree Schenecker has a long history of serious mental illness and that she was severely ill with a condition that had deteriorated at the time of the killings.
For a defendant to be acquitted by reason of insanity, the defense has to prove with “clear and convincing” evidence both that she suffers from mental illness and that she either didn’t understand what she was doing and the consequences or that it was wrong.
Prosecution experts say Schenecker was motivated by anger toward her husband, feelings of betrayal by her family and worries about her children getting mental illness, becoming victims of molestation and having the stigma of a mother who had committed suicide. Schenecker, the prosecution experts say, had rational reasons to reach these conclusions.
Defense experts said Schenecker suffered from bipolar disorder with psychotic features and that the killings were motivated by a psychotic belief she was helping the children by saving them from a life of pain and bringing them with her to heaven.
Prosecution witnesses agreed Schenecker suffered from serious mental illness and did not dispute the diagnosis of bipolar disorder with psychotic features.
But they said evidence showed that Shenecker was not legally insane.
“There’s substantial evidence that she was able to reason and reflect,” said prosecution psychiatrist Barbara Stein, who cited what she said were a number of example’s of Schenecker’s ability to do that. For instance, Schenecker lied when she bought the gun she used, telling workers in the gun shop she needed protection because there had been burglaries in her neighborhood.
Stein said there is no evidence that Schenecker was in a psychotic state when she killed the children.
Stein noted that on the day of the killing, Schenecker took Calyx to track practice and then went to the Hard Rock Casino to gamble for several hours. Schenecker knew what time she needed to get home to be there when Beau arrived.
“There are a number of non-psychotic reasons for her plan,” Stein said.
Schenecker’s mental illness was the worst it had been in 20 years, Stein noted; she had wrecked the car while under the influence of alcohol and narcotics; her relationship with her husband had deteriorated.
Parker Schenecker had put his wife in rehab after the car accident, and she hated it. She felt her husband and children had betrayed and abandoned her and were going on with their lives without her. Her relationship with Calyx was also bad.
When police questioned her after the killings, she sometimes seemed incoherent and confused, Stein said. But she said Schenecker gave police accurate information about the killings. Stein said Schenecker’s confused, shaking appearance after the killings was caused by a combination of shock and overdoses she took of lithium and Coumadin in a failed attempt to kill herself.
Schenecker has said she was afraid her husband was about to divorce her, and Stein said that was a “totally reasonable” fear, given what had happened in their lives at that time.
“In my opinion, the statements she made and the rationale she gave ... were a combination of some degree of legitimate concern and some some degree of acting out anger or resentment towards her family,” said another prosecution psychiatrist Donald Taylor.
Prosecution experts agreed Schenecker had documented psychotic episodes in the past, but they said they were rare.
For example, in 2009, she thought her husband had put cameras in the house. Another time, she thought she saw the figure of an angel in a television set that was turned off.
Prosecution experts cited evidence that Schenecker planned the killings and knew that what she was about to do was wrong.
For instance, she wrote in her journal, “The evil starts Thursday.” The children were killed that Thursday. She also wrote about wanting to have a “Saturday massacre.”
And prosecution psychologist Randy Otto said Schenecker didn’t tell anyone her plan because she knew it would have been thwarted.
“Ms. Schenecker was a devoted and caring mother whose parenting abilities were compromised by her mental illness,” said Otto, who disputed a defense expert who said sane parents don’t kill their children.
“I’m not aware of any credible professional authority that says essentially every person who kills his or her child is insane.”
Closing arguments are set for Thursday.