TAMPA — Apologizing profusely, Julie Schenecker wept Thursday night as she told a judge she believes the two children she shot to death “are in no pain and they are alive and enjoying everything and anything heaven has to offer, Jesus protecting them and keeping them safe until we get there.”
Schenecker had just been convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in the Jan. 27, 2011, slayings of her children, Calyx, 16, and Beau, 13. Jurors took less than three hours to reach their verdict, rejecting defense arguments that Schenecker was insane at the time she shot her children.
Following Schenecker's emotional statement, Circuit Judge Emmet Lamar Battles, saying the case was “almost too much for most to comprehend,” sentenced her to the mandatory sentence of two life terms without parole.
Schenecker's former husband, Parker Schenecker, told reporters afterward that the verdict “gives my family a sense of relief.”
The retired Army colonel, who was on deployment in the Middle East when his children were murdered, thanked the Tampa community for its support in the past three years.
“While this decision doesn't bring my children back,” he said, “it does give my family an opportunity to move forward and honor their memory with the important work that we've been doing with Calyx and Beau Schenecker Memorial Fund, and remembering how they lived.”
Julie Schenecker's family, some of whom wept after the verdict and sentence, didn't talk to reporters. They were escorted out of the courthouse by Hillsborough Sheriff's deputies.
In her rambling statement to the court, Julie Schenecker, who did not testify during the two-week trial, veered from to listing everyone she felt due an apology to lauding the justice system that had just convicted her as “the best in the world.”
She said she took responsibility for what she did. “I know I shot my son and daughter,” she said. “I don't know why.”
After announcing their verdict, jurors left the courthouse without talking to reporters. One alternate juror, who gave his name only as James, said he would have voted to convict Schenecker because he believed Schenecker was sane at the time of the shootings.
“There were a number of things,” he said referring to the evidence presented during the trial, including the fact Schenecker went back to the gun store to get the weapon five days after she paid for it. “I think her journal had a big impact.”
He also said the rest of the jurors' “minds were made up for a day or two already.”
In closing arguments, defense attorney Jennifer Spradley said Schenecker started her downward spiral into psychotic insanity the summer before she killed her children.
She started having embarrassing, uncontrolled body movements from one of her psychiatric medications, and decided to go off the drug, Abilify, which was treating her bipolar disorder. She didn't want to embarrass her daughter and wanted to hide the mental illness that had haunted her most of her life, Spradley said.
The prosecution acknowledged Schenecker is seriously mentally ill and that mental illness fueled her actions. But Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner said the killings were motivated by anger, resentment and Schenecker's feelings she had been betrayed and isolated by her husband and children.
Schenecker told police she had killed the children because they were “sassy” and “mouthy,” She tried to kill herself but passed out after overdosing on lithium and Coumadin.
Part of the motive, Pruner said, was to have Parker Schenecker “as an emotional target.”
In their summations Thursday, both sides wove the evidence and testimony into a narrative of the months leading up to the killings. While they saw the shootings through different prisms, they agreed on much of what happened.
When Julie Schenecker decided to go off Abilify, her psychiatrist at the University of South Florida was new, only 20 days into his residency, and over his head with someone whose illness was as serious and complicated as Schenecker's, Spradley said. Her mental condition took a nosedive.
“By Parker Schenecker's account, this is the worst she has been in 20 years,” Spradley said, “but she doesn't want to embarrass her family. She doesn't want to alienate her daughter, so she self-medicates.”
Her relationship with Calyx was on the rocks. Spradley said Calyx, because she was a teen, used language that chipped at her mother's self-esteem, not understanding why her mother couldn't get out of bed like other mothers, why she couldn't get herself together.
They argued and Schenecker slapped her daughter. Child protection authorities were called, but the case was closed as a disciplinary incident.
Schenecker started abusing alcohol. She tried to address that but drank before an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and wrecked the car in early November. Her husband wouldn't let her into the house and arranged for her to stay in a hotel for a night before she was admitted to rehab in Pinellas County.
Parker Schenecker, who had dealt with his wife's mental illness for most of their 20 years of marriage, was worried about the safety of the children and didn't want them in the car with their mother.
Julie Schenecker hated rehab, lawyers said.
“It's November,” Spradley said. “She doesn't want to be separated from her children, but she goes. Mr. Schenecker is the authority figure in the home, described by Ms. Schenecker as the father figure to her. She goes.”
Parker Schenecker took the children to the Panhandle for a family Thanksgiving celebration. He left his wife stewing in rehab. When she was released the following Sunday, he told her not to apologize but to show by her actions that she had changed.
In December, he and Beau flew to California for the Rose Bowl.
Citing an email Parker Schenecker sent to the rest of the family and emails he sent to his wife's psychiatrist, Spradley said Parker Schenecker went from dealing with what he called “the drumbeat” of his wife's mental illness to treating her as an alcoholic.
“Her illness is getting worse,” Spradley said.
The psychiatrist said he couldn't share information with Parker Schenecker because of privacy laws. Parker Schenecker asked his wife to sign a waiver, and she thumbed her nose. “Hell no!” she wrote in an email. “Sorry about your luck.”
Spradley said Schenecker was thinking like a child; she didn't want her husband to know she had developed a gambling problem.
In the meantime, her energy was gone. She couldn't get out of bed. “She's getting sicker and sicker,” Spradley said.
Days before the killings, Parker Schenecker, an Army colonel, had to leave for deployment to the Middle East. He testified he asked his wife if she would be alright. She looked him in the eye and assured him, “I got this.”
The family was going to counseling, Spradley said. “They're going to get better as a family. But this time is different and this trip that Parker took is different. And he had dealt with the drumbeat of their relationship. And although he had reservations, he probably thought that, as had always happened before, that she would come out of it.”
Julie Schenecker did manage to participate in the carpool, get her prescriptions and pick up dry cleaning.
The defense said Schenecker was operating on “autopilot.” The prosecution said it shows she wasn't psychotic.
Although she missed some appointments, Schenecker also continued to go to therapy. “In her last therapy session on Jan. 20, she's shaky,” Spradley said. “She's telling them she's thinking about suicide every day and she's shaky on her way out the door.”
Spradley told jurors that Schenecker was “at the bottom of the barrel in a severe depressed episode. She was at her worst, and the psychosis was a ticking timebomb.”
Although Schenecker had thought about suicide in the past, Spradley said Schenecker didn't kill herself because of her children. In her psychotic state, the defense lawyer said, Schenecker decided taking the kids with her was the way out.
“She wants to save them,” Spradley said. “She wants to be together in heaven. If they're together in heaven, they'll be healthy and she won't be sick.”
The fact Schenecker appeared smiling and happy when she bought the gun, Spradley said, shows she was psychotic. “She's going to end it. She's gong to be together with her children, with her babies, in heaven. And she's happy about that. And that is psychotic.”
Schenecker went to the gun store on a Saturday and wrote in a journal that she was upset about the legal waiting period, which meant she couldn't get the gun until Thursday. She wrote she had wanted a “Saturday massacre.”
She also wrote that Calyx had called her evil, adding, “The evil starts Thursday.” The children were killed on Thursday.
The references to evil, Pruner said, show Schenecker knew what she was doing was wrong, meaning she was legally sane.
“This defendant's evil acts were spawned by anger, resentment, a feeling of abandonment and betrayal,” Pruner said. And she also had longstanding “seething anger” toward her husband.
Pruner read notes Schenecker had written to her husband in her journal: “I could have done this anytime. Even when you were here. But luckily you weren't . I might have taken you out, too. That would have been a crying shame.”
This, Pruner told jurors, shows, “Parker was probably safer in the Middle East than he was in a bed next to her.”
She also wrote an apology, which Pruner said was evidence she knew she had done something wrong: “I'm sorry, so sorry. I don't know what to say, I sensed divorce was inevitable, but I can't live alone.”
And within minutes of the killings, she wrote an email to her husband: “Get home soon! We're waiting for you.”
Pruner said this shows she wanted her husband to discover them.
“Depressed? Absolutely,” Pruner said. “Mentally ill? Absolutely. But angry and determined that Parker Schenecker is going to find the bodies.”
Pruner said Julie Schenecker knew exactly what she was doing. “Today, in this court, with this evidence, this defendant still has the blood and Calyx and Beau Schenecker on her hands, just as she did on Jan. 28, 2011,” he said. This defendant is responsible for the murders of her two children. She was legally sane at the time she committed these acts.”